Sick Heart River by John Buchan

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Sick Heart River by John Buchan

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: So much more than an Arctic Heart of Darkness – this read of wild souls in the wilds is worth the comparison with the best of Conrad however.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 214 Date: July 2007
Publisher: Polygon
ISBN: 978-1846970306

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This was a surprise for me. It’s rare for a book to come to my attention from the reviewing gods that’s a rerelease of a 1930s novel, and one that surfaced a couple of years ago now. But when it strikes me as startlingly Conradian, updated for the times, and perfectly able to stand alongside one of literature’s greats, then it’s just a sign those reviewing gods are on the ball.

It’s the inter-war years, and Sir Edward Leithen is a dying man. Tubercular, he shuts up shop with everything – his status as MP, his law practice, and more. Friends alert him to a respected man living in North America, who has gone – well, gone what? AWOL, native, mad, rogue, missing – all are almost accurate, for he certainly has gone. Leithen, an experienced mountaineer, sees a last gasp flurry to his life in the job, especially when it turns out the target of the mission is travelling in practically unexplored Canadian wilderness.

But – who is going to be saving whom?

There are clear signs of Heart of Darkness in these pages – the man going through feral country to find a man he has connections to, who has himself turned more than a bit feral. The wild men in the wilderness here are conveyed superbly – we see the psychology of the characters, especially Leithen, just as we get the salient details of the stunning landscapes they’re travelling through.

It’s not perfect, but still well worth reading, and had a remarkable genesis – the swansong of a man who could churn out thrillers and copious other books, written by dictation by a man dying almost as his protagonist was. Buchan’s heroes of yore, such as Hannay, are here as ghosts, but this could well startle readers coming here knowing the name only of The 39 Steps.

Psychologically astute, with a plot that looks familiar yet is not, a wild country portrayed in crafted style – yet eminently readable for purely entertainment purposes, this is Conrad’s book rewritten by someone like Tim Gautreaux – meeting at a midway point in post-Conradian history, and providing us with a book well worth recommending. You might also enjoy The Summer House Party by Caro Fraser.

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