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Thoughtful, introspective, compelling,
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This review is from: Sick Heart River (Paperback)
It seems that I am a bit of a 'late developer' in relation to Buchan's writings, having been content for far too long to remain with the 39 Steps as the benchmark for his oeuvre. This is a gruelling book by comparison, but a remarkable one.
The central character, Sir Edward Leithen, is dying, and ventures off on one last trip to the northern wilds of Canada, in order to save a man personally unknown to him, who is lost in the icy wilderness. So, from the outset, we are not presented with a happy ending, or the prospect of recovery. It is no coincidence that, at the time of writing, Buchan was living in Canada (he had become Governor-General in Ottawa) and presumably knew himself to be dying. Buchan died in 1940, and this book was not published until 1941, so we may reasonably presume that the author used the text to work out his own ideas as he approached the end - the reader will find that there is a great deal of internalisation, of self-critique and questioning on the part of Leithen as he struggles with his failing body. That this is played out against the brutal backdrop of the mountainous wilds in the middle of winter, simply adds a kind of raw power and strength to the narrative - Buchan is returning (if he ever left) to a biblical view of human nature: frail, flawed, at times so self-obsessed that we fail to see the real needs around us, yet at the same time magnificent, battling against a hostile environment.
This is a brilliant book. If Leithen is a device to present us with Buchan's own struggle with ebbing mortality, then he does not fall into the trap of idealising himself, of presenting a one-dimensional model of perfectibility. Leithen is a complex, uncertain, fragile individual who, in the end finds his own place, and comes to terms with God's sovereign rights over his own existence. It is impossible to determine what Buchan's own faith looked like - but we do see here a pronounced comprehension of a Judaeo-Christian worldview where human weakness produces works of great beauty and value - the theme of developing warmth and the bringing of life is played out against the backdrop of bleak, dead cold and nihilism. Leithen progressively and willingly surrenders his very self-controlled, ordered existence to a loving Creator in the midst an environment marked by chaos and death. Indeed, in effect, he gives his life vicariously.
So, 'Sick Heart River' works at several levels. It's a gripping adventure, but it is also much, much more. A fitting end to Buchan's prolific output, and a book I will no doubt come back to again.