The world is a scaly old snake. She is a cunning old woman, and the last human being that draws a breath on this planet will be a cunning old woman, who raises chickens and cabbages, has no illusions, and has outlived all her children. The world is not sentimental, but pitiless. I've given it to myself to know her mind. I flatter myself that I understand her a little. Maybe I've grown to resemble her. Only she's going to go on forever, and I won't.
It's difficult to escape the suspicion, when reading post-apocalyptic novels, that if you found yourself at the end of civilisation as we know it, the apocalypse itself would be the least of your worries. Being turned into a smear on the wall during an all-out nuclear war, contracting an unstoppable supervirus that liquefies your internal organs within minutes, getting torn apart by zombies: all horrible fates, true, but narrowly surviving such events, and abruptly finding yourself one of the last people standing? The very definition of grim.
The Road was one of the strongest arguments I've ever read for why it might just be better to get the whole thing over with. With nuclear winter closing in rapidly, food stocks dwindling and no means to replace them - the only living things we see reproduce in the books are humans, and they don't do it nearly fast enough to make long-term cannibalism a viable option - the triumph of hope over experience seemed to me an increasingly thin reason not to put the remaining bullets to good use. (Given the tone of the novel's ending, I suspect McCarthy would disagree with my reading, but that's my prerogative as a reader.)
Like The Road, Marcel Theroux's wonderful Far North - the third of the Clarke Award shortlisters to be reviewed here, and my favourite of those I've read - shows us the world ending not with a bang, but a shiver. By force of long, lonely habit rather than any real expectation of trouble ("I've been doing it so long that I'm shaped to it, like a hand that's been carrying buckets in the cold"), our gun-toting narrator, Makepeace, patrols the frozen, deserted streets of a remote Siberian settlement. The town, Evangeline, was founded a generation before by (mostly) American Quakers seeking a 'simpler' frontier life, on land gifted by the Russian government:
The settlers got more land than they knew what to do with. And it seemed a smart bet to us. Our summers in the north were getting longer and our winters milder. No one was overly concerned that what was easing the cold of our winters was making the crowded parts of the globe hot and hungry and restless.
I was born in the false dawn of those early years. The dawn that was really a sunset.
It's never entirely clear what happened to bring all this to an end. The effects of climate change - widespread famine, drought, and the attendant social and political upheavals - seem the most likely candidate, although Makepeace, looking back through the veil of a strict Christian-separatist upbringing, cannot help but attribute the desperation of the starving refugees who staggered into the city to a generalised moral decline of civilisation. This, together with the darker secrets that Makepeace uncovers in the course of the narrative, make it plain why this crisis breaks Evangeline: fear, distrust, hypocrisy, wilful blindness and a pervasive I've-got-mine mentality come together in a conflict over how to respond to the starving outsiders. In short, it is a battle for the town's soul, which no-one wins.
Family and friends all some years dead, Makepeace deploys frontier skills (hunting, tracking, etc, plus melting down bits of metal to make bullets) to scrape by in the old family home, effacing painful memories in the hard day-to-day labour of survival. The bitter aftermath of Evangeline's slow collapse has left Makepeace with somewhat jaded, though not entirely misanthropic, view of the world:
Human beings are rat-cunning and will happily kill you twice over for a hot meal. That's what long observation has taught me. On the other hand, with a full belly, and a good harvest in the barn, and a fire in the hearth, there's nothing so charming, so generous, no one more decent than a well-fed men.
Things change, however, after a chance meeting with an equally lonely Chinese stranger.
[And here I have no choice but to spoil a significant plot twist - albeit one that is revealed twenty pages in to the book - so if you're planning to read Far North and would rather enjoy the surprise, stop reading this review and pick up the book instead!]
Like Makepeace, the stranger's appearances - or, more precisely, the assumptions made about the stranger - are deceptive. Like Makepeace, the stranger is not a man, but a woman.
Making the protagonist female may sound like a gimmick - hey, it's like The Road, but with a girl! - but in fact it's a brilliant move. Firstly, I was delighted to have been fooled, completely, by the opening chapters: to see subverted the unconscious and entirely unwarranted way I had read the narrator's gender (self-reliance, a taciturn aversion to company, utter determination to stand up for oneself and a reference to "buckl[ing] on guns" in the opening line do not necessarily a man make). Since gender performance and the need to pass for a man have been intense concerns for Makepeace during the long years since Evangeline began to crumble - and since Makepeace is clearly and consciously selective, in her narration, about what she chooses to tell or to conceal - it's perhaps not surprising that she should elide her womanhood even in her narration:
Killing always sits heavy with me.
Whether that's because of my being a woman, or because my disposition is naturally soft-hearted for another reason, I don't know.
I've had to fight the womanish things in my nature for almost as long as I can remember. These are not soft-hearted, womanish times.
Being tall, and broad in the shoulders, and deep-voiced, it's been easy enough to pass for a man.
Secondly, and more important for the novel's themes, the post-apocalypse story is fundamentally a different one with a woman at its centre. When the restraints of society collapse, women are prey to an additional set of dangers, not least from those who seek to fill the vacuum by assigning to themselves the role of their womenfolk's protectors - and thus their controllers. The loftier the pedestal, the harder it is to get down from, unaided.
Pregnancy, likewise, is a motif in Far North; not because women all become earth mothers the instant they start living off the land, but because in the absence of reliable methods of prevention it's almost inevitable, and when it happens it's a source of both great hope and direst vulnerability. Pregnancy is a risky enough business even when society hasn't vanished and taken centuries of medical advances with it; under these circumstances, it verges on Russian roulette. In at least one - likely two - instances pregnancy is also a daily reminder of powerlessness and rape; in another it's a bittersweet reminder of fleeting intimacy.
Of course, neither rape nor pregnancy are a woman's whole universe; but, while I share Niall's weariness with many authors' (and film-makers') reliance on rape as a rather lazy (not to mention exploitative) shorthand way to shape the personality and motivations of their female characters, I disagree with his suggestion that this is what Theroux does in Far North. Makepeace has such a strong, distinctive voice - such pragmatism, thoughtfulness, and generosity - that she is never reduced to the sum of her past trauma. Her recollections of the past also make it clear that it was not the rape alone that made her the tough and resourceful person she is: she already was that person, and it is the life she's lived since, much more than an act of violence, that has honed such qualities in her. "Me, I was a cuckoo. I never belonged in that world", she tells us; she was not "soft and scholarly" like the rest of the town, but was rather the "hard and practical" one who, for example, accompanied her father on a long trek through the taiga to visit the indigenous Chukchi people.
Unlike most of the inhabitants of Evangeline, moreover, she had and has no interest in romanticising the unspoiled, crisply described landscape, or the isolation and 'simplicity' of frontier life. It just is. The arctic year is an implacably hard one, "nine months of cold and three of living hell-for-leather". She remembers how adults around her would comment on how lucky she was to be free of the pressures and immoralities of modern city life, but to her this meant little:
I've never known another landscape. I grew up with bears in the woods behind our house, and wolves, and poisoned toadstools, and a rotten bridge that might well have had a troll under it, so the storybooks never seemed that far-fetched to me. What seems far-fetched is life in a city, or my father's tales of Chicago, or the plane which I saw with my own eyes breaking up on that hillside.
Nor does she share their distaste for technology; in fact, she is exhilarated by it: "what a piece of work man is! What can't we do when we have a mind to?" she says. "I feel a kind of awe at my ancestors, living surrounded by more kinds of knowledge than will fit inside any one man's head." When she sees a plane go down near Evangeline, she becomes "fidgety with hope" that life is going on, elsewhere, and sets out into the world to find it.
What she encounters in her travels - and what she learns about Evangeline - confirms, repeatedly, a figurative gloss on the book's title: this is a land so far north that no compass will work there, including - apparently - many people's moral ones. But amid the slave camps and the deserted, poisoned city ("all concrete and right angles [...] [it] looked like it would stand to attention for eternity"), she finds that fellow-feeling, and even trust, are not impossible. The treatment of her friendship with a man she meets by chance, Shamsudin (whose name means 'sun of the faith' in Arabic), is particularly interesting - and unsentimental - in this regard: wary, distant, often prickly, but ultimately about two people coming together in sympathy and life-affirmation.
Towards the end, one or two of the plot twists feel more contrived than really suits the measured style of the story up to that point, and the book never really stops being bleak - but Theroux does not wallow in suffering for its own sake. Makepeace is more than strong enough as a character to carry us, and herself, through; her spirit buoyed me up, and her reserves of patience and persistence persuaded me that her will to go on was not delusion but an unquenchable thirst to know, to see, to explore.
Unafraid of death, she is unafraid to live, for the time being.