The contrast between men’s publicly declared dreams of exploration and discovery and the secrets they withhold from the world: it’s this that drives the sixth novel from the prizewinning Canadian author (The Divine Ryans, 1999, etc.).
In familiar Johnston territory—his native Newfoundland—near the end of the 19th century, Devlin Stead addresses us in a voice characterized by Dickensian urgency and warmth. He lives with his doting Aunt Daphne and brusque (paternal) Uncle Edward, following the desertion of his family by Devlin’s father Francis Stead, a physician whose experiences of Arctic exploration continue to draw him farther northward, and the death by presumable suicide of Devlin’s forsaken mother Amelia. A series of letters from Francis Stead’s explorer comrade, New York–based Dr. Frederick Cook, lure Devlin to America, amazing revelations from the guilty Dr. Cook (who may know more than he tells about Francis Stead’s disappearance), and a rescue operation to Greenland to retrieve real-life adventurer Robert Peary (with whom Stead and Cook had previously traveled) from another of his several attempts to become the first man to reach the North Pole. Peary’s suspicious mixture of bravado and megalomania seems to have infected Cook, who then takes Devlin with him on a putative “hunting expedition” that appears to climax in Cook’s defeat of (his archrival) Peary. But things are not what they seem, and darker secrets will be revealed before the story reaches its lengthy and moving epilogue. Navigator is generously stuffed with crisp writing, rich characterizations, and haunting descriptions of the harsh beauty of the Arctic (where “ice . . . [is] thrust up like white lava from the center of the earth”). But its heavy reliance on exchanges of letters, meditation, and reconsideration make it an initially slow (if ultimately rewarding) reading experience.
Marginally less wonderful, then, than The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1999). But all that means is that it’s merely better than about 90 percent of most contemporary fiction. Johnston is a great novelist in the making.