High Latitudes

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Connecting commercial London with the icefields and icebergs of Antarctica may seem a reach, especially for a book that calls itself a “romance,” but nodding to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s idea that a romance frees the writer from “minute fidelity to the ordinary or probable,” James Buchan invents a host of landed gentry, business tycoons, and working-class laborers to tell the story of Jane Haddon who, at the age of thirty, had become responsible for what was left of England’s textile industry. Jane Haddon, as managing director of Associated British Textiles, is the highest paid woman in Great Britain—blessed with a brilliant mathematical mind and cursed with a terrible past that comes to light in a series of cleverly conceived and swiftly paced flashbacks woven into the main plot.

Centering in the autumn of 1987, the plot depicts the disastrous effects of the financial chaos that followed the market crash in 1987 on the lives of the characters who inhabit the London financial world and focuses on, among other things, Jane’s attempts to save a manufacturing plant in Motherwell, Scotland, to save her former husband from bankruptcy induced by his (and many others’) unwise investments in Lloyd’s of London, and, indeed, to win him back after divorcing him eight years earlier. Lonely, driven, and a recovered heroin addict, Jane Haddon is a remarkably tough, yet sensitive young woman, who must face up to startling truths about her past, including an unknown half sister who happens to be a strike leader at Motherwell.

In contrast and opposition to Jane Haddon is Roddie Turpe, “that thug from Lloyd’s.” An important theme of the book emerges from its examination of the insurance business, the predacious vermin who run it and profit by it, and their victims, largely the old monied class who have little ready cash but have vast amounts of property which they seek, with the help of R. W. Turpe and others like him, to convert to money without actually selling it. Roddie, the stupidest of “all the Members Agents at Lloyd’s at this period,” and his wife, Cecilia, use their questionable riches to embed themselves into “that most transient of realities: society.” The embedding is not without wider consequences, for, as Buchan notes, “A class in decline meets a class on the make; they combine; and detonate.” In his brilliant analysis of the Turpes, Buchan creates his own Snopes, a vision of rapacity who “carted off” the possessions of the older, propertied class:

not in body but in essence, as the phantom capital of his insurance ventures; and the squire or lady, rising each morning to see the Ferneley in its wonted place above the sideboard in the dining room, and the sideboard itself, forgot those objects were at risk of fire or shipwreck ten thousand miles away; forgot, indeed, that they no longer owned them. For money, which is perfectly mobile and utterly indifferent, is a terrible destroyer of social form.

The various scams by which Lloyd’s of London operates until it all comes undone beneath the weight of the combined disasters, both natural and human-made, of 1987—chemical waste dumps, oil spills, hurricanes, the explosion of oil platforms in the North Sea, a fire in Malibu—are the subject of Buchan’s mordant irony, expressed via a point of view that reminds one of a Conrad or a Hawthorne. Turpe is a splendidly crafted villain—“Was ever worldly ruin so plausibly impersonated?”—who despite his lack of intelligence saw that Lloyd’s was not equal to the claims of five billion dollars likely to result from the oil spill disaster in Alaska. Even he, Buchan says, understood that “there is no such thing as insurance on the earth; that human activity leaves injuries that cannot be redeemed by money; that there is more to history than probability and compound interest.”

Buchan connects his attack on the insurance business and specifically Lloyd’s with other evils of modern-day business practices such as Shell Oil’s decision between 1953 and 1968 to burn chemical waste in open drums at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a decision that resulted in horrific depredations not only against the immediate victims, agriculture and wildlife, and farm families in the United States but also “about thirty thousand families of the English and Scots gentry” and “the people of the United States, and their descendants, and the land, and even, who knows, God in his great patience.” As a former writer for the Financial Times of London, Buchan commands a vast body of knowledge about the “sharp” practices of modern international business that convinces the reader always (even if bewildering at times).

Yet Jane Haddon is not an independent agent; her employer is the evil “Jimmy,”—James, Lord Doncaster, who has pillaged the Queen Elizabeth II Works at Motherwell, Scotland, a “rust-bucket” textiles factory, over the years by various financial...

(The entire section is 2027 words.)