Sunday, September 06, 2015

Book review - "Sick Heart River" by John Buchan (1941)

John Buchan's penultimate novel and last classic, in part because it was published after he died and is about a man - Sir Edward Leithen - who is terminally ill and seeks one final adventure. Unsure what to do with himself, he accepts a challenge to find a French Canadian financier who has had a nervous breakdown and headed into the deep Canadian north. This results in some typical Buchan posturing about what's wrong with civilisation and the world, but there's not a lot of it - soon Leithen is headed north and we get some of Buchan's finest descriptive writing, evocatively conveying the dangerous and beautiful Canadian wilds. It's not a real page turner or thriller like the better known Buchan books - there's no baddies, its man against nature and himself really. There are some interesting support characters in the form of the trappers who help him (two brothers, one with Leithen the other with the financier).

I'm not sure this is a tale of redemption - because Leithen has lead a decent and productive life - but it is more about finding some purpose in your last days. Maybe it's redemption for Galliard. But it is surprisingly moving - the fact it's about a dying man helps.

It is as imperialist as anything else Buchan wrote - the last act involves Leithen whipping some slovenly disease ridden Indians into shape and by jove to they come to respect and even worship him. The white man's burden to the very end.

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