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Book Review

A pioneer’s journey after an apocalypse

By Eric Liebetrau
October 2, 2009

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‘Humans are rat-cunning and will happily kill you twice over a hot meal,’’ observes the narrator at the beginning of Marcel Theroux’s latest novel, “Far North.’’ Take away “his food, make his future uncertain, let him know that no one’s watching him, and he won’t just kill you, he’ll come up with a hundred and one reasons why you deserve it.’’

Such a bleak outlook won’t inspire confidence in the protagonist’s prospects, but Theroux inhabits his scarred world with the deft assurance of Cormac McCarthy - it’s the post-apocalyptic territory of “The Road,’’ with the heartlessness of “Blood Meridian,’’ all transplanted to Siberia in the near future.

The narrator, a hard-bitten pioneer woman named Esperanza Makepeace, navigates the frozen wasteland with the knowledge that mankind has demolished the planet beyond immediate repair. Her town of Evangeline was settled by her parents and other immigrants from Europe as part of Russia’s attempt to fill their free land with anyone other than the encroaching Chinese. Seeking a new start, they began anew, “all of them believ[ing] that in the space and stillness of the Far North, they would recover the quiet music of life as it ought to be - austere, rugged, shaped by the seasons and the knowledge of hardship.’’ Those ideals persisted for a time, but intruders forced the citizens to form a militia, and the society eventually collapsed under the weight of the ensuing conflicts.

Scrounging for food and shelter amid the fragments of her fallen civilization, Makepeace reflects on how she - and the world - arrived at the current position. Many of the memories she dredges up go a long way toward explaining her pessimistic view of mankind, but she also glimpses a few hopeful nuggets, “more than a remnant of that world out there, working as it ought to, as it had in the past, performing its miracles, putting men and who knew what else in the air, and I set my heart on finding it.’’

Makepeace journeys from the ruins of her hometown to “scout out the others.’’ She arrives in the settlement of Horeb, in “New Judea,’’ an initially welcoming town of former Quakers presided over by Reverend Boathwaite. However, Makepeace soon discovers the sinister intentions of Boathwaite beneath the seemingly benign theocracy. Unjustly arrested for “spying,’’ she is sent to a labor camp with dozens of others.

Good behavior eventually earns her a cushy position as a gardener, but it doesn’t preclude her from a visit to “the Zone,’’ a horrifying shell of a city supposedly contaminated with anthrax or a similar biological or chemical hazard. As she and her enslaved companions mine the town for valuables to bring to their captors, they uncover a cache of eerie relics from the city’s shady past.

The discovery has repercussions far beyond the Zone, forcing Makepeace to confront the egregious mistakes of her careless ancestors.

Even though the spare survival tale that encompasses the first half of the book occasionally lacks spark, “Far North’’ is a definite step forward for Theroux, not just in his storytelling abilities, but in tone and narrative voice. Far from the wry comedy of his previous 2001 novel, “The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes,’’ the author’s language here echoes the grandeur and bombast of religious scripture. It’s a quality he shares with McCarthy, but Theroux adds a few neat plot twists and a nuanced, well-integrated environmental message.

In the inevitable comparisons, “Far North’’ doesn’t reverberate with the scorched-earth, hellfire might of “The Road,’’ but Theroux’s action-packed tale of hope-tinged dystopia makes for resonant, timely, and enjoyable reading.

Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews.

FAR NORTH By Marcel Theroux

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 314 pp., $25

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