Civilization as we know it is nonexistent, but life goes on in Siberia in a bleak fourth novel from Theroux (The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes, 2001, etc.).
He imagines a planet, barely subsisting in the aftermath of global conflict and environmental catastrophe, on which hopeful survivors have received land grants in a frigid wilderness inhabited by indigenous tribes and “ruled” by slaveholding warlords. Such information is doled out sparingly by protagonist-narrator Makepeace, a constabulary officer in a virtually abandoned township whose own family, former Quakers, are casualties of “the Zone,” also called Far North, and its recent history of violent misrule. Makepeace’s loneliness is eased by the companionship of Ping, an escaped pregnant Chinese slave. She and her baby perish shortly after childbirth, leaving Makepeace depressed, suicidal and vulnerable to a hopefulness that draws the constable farther away from any remnants of order and into traps set for those still enfeebled by anticipation of a future. The novel’s first half is truly chilling. Its climax and denouement are, alas, clichéd, unconvincing and far too indebted to literary influences, most notably Russell Hoban’s brilliant dystopian nightmare Riddley Walker (1980). Still, the initial 100 or so pages form a superbly lean and mean survival tale graced by the authority of an author who knows the lands of which he writes and finds beauty and majesty in their punishing extremes, while precisely rendering their terrors. The figure of Makepeace, whose true self and the source of her strengths and weaknesses are revealed in a perfectly sprung early surprise, is not easily forgotten.
A good novel that very nearly became a much better one. This accomplished author has a few more steps to take, but looks to be well on the road to full maturity.