Book Review: ‘The Greenland Breach’ by Bernard Besson

'The Greenland Breach' by Bernard BessonThe Greenland Breach by Bernard Besson, Le French Book, 2013

This near 300-page thriller was first published in France in 2011 and already seems dated, as it uses an over-simplified version of ‘global warming’ as its narrative driving force.  Today, of course, this term is heard less and less, having largely been replaced by the more accurate ‘climate change’, and environmental concerns are now focused on a broader range of extreme climatic events, both hot and cold.  To take one example of the datedness: we are repeatedly told that “the [polar] bear was an endangered species and a god in peril,” yet studies show that, despite the thawing of sea ice, polar bears are thriving in the Arctic (and this was known as early as 2007).  Another example is oil production: the novel postulates a scenario in which “oil wells will start drying up . . . there will be a great demand for any oil.”  With crude prices falling fifty per cent to under $50 a barrel at time of writing, and supply in Alberta alone said to be sufficient for the next hundred years, this scenario now seems hard to envisage.

Unfortunately a strong anti-Canadian tone permeates the book.  It is rarely explicit but I can’t recall a single positive allusion to anything Canadian, except perhaps Canadian Inuit whom the author seems to consider pan-nationals.

Examples of this bias are numerous.  The hero’s employers are described as “lone brutes who had built an empire in fur and wood in Hudson (sic) Bay before turning to the extraction of bitumen from the tar sands.  Nothing could be less green or more polluting.”  Really?  Has Besson never seen the smog over Beijing?  How does he think the air quality over that city compares to, say, Fort McMurray in the oil sands?  Is he aware that Canada’s oil sands companies invest billions in ecological reclamation and emissions reductions?  Or that, using the latest, less-intrusive technologies, the newest oil sands developments emit less carbon dioxide per barrel than oil wells in Saudi Arabia?  Or that Canada, a liberal democracy, has stringent anti-pollution laws in contrast to, say, Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, or Sudan, or China?  Yet the author consistently singles Canada out for negative comment.

Indeed, the anti-Canadian theme never lets up.  The reader is told that “The head of North Land has amassed his fortune from the tar sands of Alberta.  The extraction, cleaning, and production of the petroleum alternative consumed astronomical quantities of water and released incredible amounts of the greenhouse gas.  North Land, which diligently groomed an image of environmental consciousness, derived its power from the most polluting of oil-producing industries.”  No mention that the water used in the process is recycled.  So much for “astronomical quantities.”  And, of course, coal-burning power plants — such as Cordemais and Provence Power Stations in France! — produce far more emissions that the Canadian oil sands.

In the middle of the book, Besson goes on a multi-paragraph information dump about fracking.  Proponents of fracking argue that it has been going on since just after World War II without a single proven incident of environmental damage.  But there is not a single character, however minor, in Besson’s book to provide some narrative balance by voicing this perspective.  Instead, the narrator (not a character speaking) simply hammers on about “massive volumes of water” (which again Besson omits to say is recycled) and unspecified “chemicals” — the implication being that this is some toxic mix allowed to flow into water systems.  [All this occurs, we are told, in some place called “the state of Alberta” which thankfully bears no resemblance to the reality to be found in the Canadian province of Alberta.]

Indeed, Alberta becomes a derogatory term in this novel: one sweaty, grimy, smelly character who has been confined in a ship’s cabin for several days is described as “beginning to look like a bogeyman who’d been pulled out of Alberta’s tar sands.”

Of course the author is writing fiction, can make up any reality he wishes, and be as biased as he likes.  My point is simply that his factual omissions and argumentative imbalance seriously affect the credibility of the narrative.  Non-factual errors also mar the reader’s enjoyment, from simple typos (e.g. “Intuits” for Inuits occurs more than once), to odd word repetitions such as “paintings and sculptures of polar art paintings and sculptures”, “he pulled his hand out again, his hand was empty” and “the cavity just below where he had buried the balls just below him.”

Finally, and again marring plot credibility, the author makes some peculiar plot decisions.  Sometimes this is relatively minor, as for example when an Inuit guide, with no stated or apparent reason for doing so, suddenly decides to let himself drown in icy waters rather than try to save himself.  Other times it is more serious.  A sniper literally has the hero in his crosshairs but his phone rings, calling him to another job.  The ‘kill’ is all set up, all the sniper has to do is fire one shot and then one more.  But instead of taking a few minutes to finish the hero off (whom he subsequently spends about 150 pages pursuing for exactly the same purpose!), he clears off.  This is not remotely credible.

Despite all the above, I found this a readable book that pulled me along and was fairly enjoyable overall.  The main characters, particularly the heroic trio, grew on me over time.  I would read another novel by this author, though not one set in or about Canada!  I award The Greenland Breach two and a half stars out of five.

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