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Dreaming a dream of Lord Franklin

It has been 14 years since Irish author Cormac James' first novel, Track & Field, was published and, either by chance or design, the arrival of his second novel has been timed to perfection.

Early last month, Canadian archaeologists located the wreckage of HMS Erebus, part of Sir John Franklin's lost 1845 Arctic expedition. The British explorer was attempting to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage when his two ships and their 129-strong crew vanished.

The story of Franklin and his gallant crew - unforgettably portrayed in Sinéad O'Connor's haunting version of the traditional song of the same name - caught the imagination of the world at the time and still is remembered today.

Not surprising then that the recent discovery made headlines once again, solving one of history's greatest maritime mysteries.

For Cork-born Cormac James the discovery has imbued his long-awaited second offering with unexpected topicality. His new novel is a fictionalised account of, not the doomed expedition, but the subsequent search for Franklin and his men.

For 12 years, the freezing seas were combed for any sign of the ships or their crew. The Surfacing is set on the fictional HMS Impetus, an Admiralty ship en route to join that search in the spring of 1850.

The crew are a motley bunch lured on the dangerous expedition by the promise of a substantial finder's reward. James places the reader in the narrative care of second-in-command Richard Morgan, an initially unlikeable protagonist.

HMS Impetus, a late-comer to the search, is dispatched to the Wellington Channel, an unchartered, polar wasteland - "the most daunting of all the sectors" - at the furthest reaches of the search area.

By this point, James has laid the narrative groundwork for a male-dominated tale of Arctic hardship, icy isolation and heroic endurance.

However, the author has concealed in the Impetus a narrative bombshell in the form of stowaway Kitty Rink, who is pregnant with Morgan's child. Her presence hidden until it is too late to return to shore, the mum-to-be must accompany the men on their expedition. As Kitty prepares to give birth on board, it seems the barren landscape into which they venture will bear witness to new life, not just death.

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James excels in his depiction of the hostile environment that eventually becomes the Impetus's white prison. However, the vast, endless ice-scape contrasts sharply with the claustrophobic situation developing below deck.

This claustrophobia and sense of encroaching doom is not just confined to the cabin-fever developing in the ship's bowels. The vessel itself is being physically squeezed as it creaks and groans under the relentless pressure of the ice that is solidifying around it and eventually renders them ice-bound.

Meanwhile, Morgan, faced with the daily physical reminder of Kitty's burgeoning bump, can feel the prospect of fatherhood bearing down on him with equal force. As the baby in Kitty womb grows bigger, it seems the pressure on all parties - crew, Morgan and the vessel itself - is hurtling towards breaking point.

The Surfacing's depiction of the harsh, sub-zero realities facing those brave souls who chose to join the Franklin search party makes for an engrossing, well-researched read.

However, it is James' willingness to break free from the limitations of the traditional Arctic tale that takes the novel beyond the genre and widens its appeal. It allows the novel to venture far beyond the expedition narrative and delve into issues of fatherhood and responsibility, bringing all the complexities of the crew's life back home under the blinding glare and unforgiving scrutiny of the Arctic sun.

Beneath the surface of this expedition story, as with the stark ice-scape of the Arctic, it is in fact teeming with life.


The Surfacing

Cormac James

Sandstone Press, tpbk, 352 pages, €12.80

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350