My father had an expression for a thing that turned out bad. He'd say it had gone west. But going west always sounded pretty good to me. After all, westwards is the path of the sun. And through as much history as I know of, people have moved west to settle and find freedom. But our world had gone north, truly gone north, and just how far north I was beginning to learn.
Out on the frontier of a failed state, Makepeace - sheriff and perhaps last citizen - patrols a city's ruins, salvaging books but keeping the guns in good repair. Into this cold land comes shocking evidence that life might be flourishing elsewhere: a refugee emerges from the vast emptiness of forest, whose existence inspires Makepeace to reconnect with human society and take to the road, armed with rough humor and an unlikely ration of optimism. What Makepeace finds is a world unraveling: stockaded villages enforcing an uncertain justice and hidden work camps laboring to harness the little-understood technologies of a vanished civilization. But Makepeace's journey - rife with danger - also leads to an unexpected redemption.
Far North takes the reader on a quest through an unforgettable arctic landscape, from humanity's origins to its possible end. Haunting, spare, yet stubbornly hopeful, the novel is suffused with an ecstatic awareness of the world's fragility and beauty, and its ability to recover from our worst trespasses.
Far North shares the futuristic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and other literary post-apocalyptic novels. Far North is set in an Arctic tundra at an unspecified point in the future. An allusion to a lost "citizenry, determined to take itself to hell as soon as possible" sets the tone of vague dread, and it is within this context that we are gradually introduced to Makepeace, constable of the deserted town of Evengeline, who eventually hits the road in search of humanity.
The dystopian setting is just one of the ways in which the story is imbued with a familiar sense of the “future past”; this is an imagining of the future that leans towards an archaic stylization that recalls White Fang and other classics of frontier mythology. The narrative voice could come from the pages of a pioneer woman's diary, the terse language not so much delivered as embodied by the voice of Yelena Schmulenson. Hers is the voice of the women of the old West, flinty and tough, though softening at the recollected memories that haunt the narrative as it gradually gives up its secrets. This undercurrent of keening nostalgia and loss underlines the story's strongest theme, which is the loneliness of survival and¬ the painful recognition of human hubris. Early on, Makepeace, using old books to fuel a stove, observes that “a burned book always makes my heart sink a little”. The erasure of knowledge, as well as a reminder of a darker tradition of book burning as a sign of civilization eating itself, conflates Makepeace’s solitary existence with a lost past and a violent and frightening future.
The character of Makepeace is the most striking achievement of Far North, and, thanks to Schmulenson’s performance, this recording is one of those perfect marriages of voice and character. In the early chapters, Theroux very carefully presents Makepeace in un-gendered terms, her relationship with femininity comprising a novel twist to the genre, as well as serving as a climaxing plot point. Yet so self-contained is Schmulenson’s delivery, that the revelation is almost as much a surprise to the listener as to the reader. There is a rhythmical pattern to Schmulenson’s speech that gives a sense of perspective to her philosophising as well as to the hardships she stoically endures. Makepeace’s lonely journey to find life outside Evengeline is also a journey into her past, and a reaffirmation of her closely guarded values. “Somewhere along the ladder of years,” she muses, “I lost the bright eyed best of me”; Yelena Schmulenson takes us on Makepeace’s strangely affirming journey in a performance impossible to imagine being bettered. Dafydd Phillips
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Wilderness epic more than post-apocalyptic