If you've gazed, just once, upon the indelible image of John Torrington's frozen, grimacing face staring from his exhumed coffin, then you're acquainted with the ghastly appeal of the 1845 Franklin Expedition.
The disastrous attempt by Sir John Franklin and crew to navigate a mythic Northwest Passage across the Arctic is the real-world engine driving Dominique Fortier's first novel, published in 2008 in Quebec and now in this fluid English translation by Sheila Fischman.
The historical plot points are widely circulated and epically tragic, bringing to any fictional treatment the expectation of a ripping yarn. Fortier opens quayside with a farewell to the ships Erebus and Terror, playing on readers' foreknowledge with a tumble of ill omens. The crew wave black (!) silk hankies at loved ones on the dock. The "greenish" harbour water sports floating garlands and dead fish. A dove lands on the rigging, then later is found dead on deck and flung "unceremoniously" into the sea.
You can almost hear the jaunty strains of the brass band sendoff dying in the cold North Atlantic wind.
On the Erebus, Sir John retires to his cabin to nurse a cup of tea and the remains of a flu bug, while on the Terror, his second, Crozier, turns from dove disposal to glance wryly at the ship's mascot. "Ungainly" mutt Neptune circles three times, flops on the deck, and farts.
The foreshadow in this story is so thoroughly precast that Fortier's overlayed portents can seem a bit heavily black-edged. In a shift to the mainland, the backstory presents Sir John and Lady Jane in their parlour. He's dozing on a couch while she and a servant sort the family silver, choosing which pieces will be sent for use at the captain's table. When John shivers in his sleep, Jane's doting solution is to cover him full-length with a handy Union Jack. There he is, wrapped in the flag, snoring. We smile at the author's image of patriot buffoonery, then she darkly spins the irony.
Franklin wakes up and is aghast: "Do you not know what it is we wrap in flags at sea?" It's a smart shift, if somewhat dulled by the fade-out line: "Lady Jane felt an inexplicable uneasiness." Surely her unease is from the all-too-explicable meaning.
Fortier's prose shines best when at its least ominous. Crozier's log entries make shipboard life saltily present; it's all about entrenched etiquette staving off petty but dangerous irritations. Occasionally we enter Franklin's point of view, mostly, it seems, to demonstrate that he's a depressive, hidebound windbag. It's Crozier who emerges as the sensitive and discerning eye on this cramped world of toughened sailors and their steady-on, port-sipping officers. The authentic human factor impels Fortier's story through some odd lapses of setting. It's a little disconcerting to witness a naval officer referring to his ship's "cellar" and "kitchen."
We might wonder how Fortier missed the terms "hold" and "galley" during her research. Later, she does use the correct terms, as if the research began as an afterthought. We also get through the men's first winter, immobilized in Arctic pack ice with virtually no reference to bitter winds, frostbite and the like, despite long exploratory treks across the frozen wastes. Later scenes rally convincingly, evoking a hell of gangrenous toes, blinding white days, endless nights.
It's a tale of divided worlds - the one an imperilled fragment of civilization where each day is a victory over oblivion, the other a cosseted drawing-room realm languishing in Victorian opulence.
In London, Lady Jane Franklin and her niece, Sophia (Crozier's pined-for unattainable), lead a cast of overfed, under-motivated society idlers. As Franklin, Crozier and their shivering, lice-ridden crew gnaw on disgusting tinned meat and maggoty sea biscuits, the ladies are at tea with cucumber sandwiches and pampered lapdogs. Lady Jane, hoping to find Sir John, does undertake a voyage to Panama, overland across the isthmus, then north by sea to the U.S. West Coast.
The fruitless quest is over in two pages, while by stark contrast, a tea tasting in Jane's parlour is detailed for four. Fortier's women, despite some nods to genuine worry about their absent men, come across as vain and shallow.
The men, striving and slowly dying on their ill-conceived journey, are meant to elicit more sympathy, and they finally do, duped as they are by the project of imperial expansion at any cost.
Tundra and parlour, we're made to conclude, reflect the period's two solitudes of male and female: Reckless ambition propping up a rose-coloured vision of hearth and home. The thematic thrust is starkly clear and, in flashes, compelling, while the novel itself remains polarized in much the same way, its dual narratives miles apart, unable to connect.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.