All "survival" means is the state or fact of continuing to live. Yet within that act exist endless possibilities and permutations for drama. From Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" to Gary Paulsen's "Hatchet," survival stories hold an archetypal allure. It's captivating to read about luckless individuals questionably matched to their calamitous circumstances who must attempt to extricate themselves from the jaws of death and go on living.

In his debut novel, "Compass," Murray Lee offers his entry into this capacious subgenre. Set in the Canadian territory of Nunavat in an Indigenous community not unlike Naujaat, the one Lee has worked in for the past 15 years as a fly-in doctor, "Compass" draws on its author's understanding of the culture and terrain of the globe's extreme north.

His witty eye for detail is on display throughout, as when he writes, "The terminal building at Iviliiq wasn't like a shipping container, it was a shipping container."

As survival stories go, Lee's leans less into the awe-inspiring and more into the absurd, a fitting approach considering that one of his aims is to puncture the myth of the stoic and heroically conquering white male adventurer.

The hapless first-person narrator's nickname "Guy" is bestowed upon him by his Inuit guide Simeonie, and it speaks to his personality as a fumbling everyman, self-aware yet vain and overconfident, a puffed-up clown destined to receive a comeuppance.

Formerly an academic, Guy has become a two-bit cruise ship historian "dressed up like Indiana Jones" convincing "auditoriums full of soft, pasty people that somehow, miraculously, adventure is within us all" while in the employ of "a preeminent international geography magazine which, due to recent events, I am no longer permitted to name."

Much of Guy's professional storytelling ethos stems from his firsthand descriptions of "a crucial piece of traditional Arctic infrastructure," the point "some ways out where the sea's solid surface stops and the ocean becomes fluid again," a place the Inuit call the Edge. The only problem is that Guy has never been there. When at last he gets caught in this fundamental falsehood, he takes it upon himself to go to the Edge to correct his dishonesty and restore his reputation.

Before his departure, Simeonie's mother, Ava Angalaarjuk, tells Guy the story of Sedna, goddess of the sea. On the ill-advised expedition, after a snowmobile accident and a tragic mishap, Guy finds himself utterly alone, "adrift on an ice floe at the start of Arctic summer" with "no way to contact anyone anywhere in the world, and, quite possibly, nobody who would" miss him.

As his hallucinatory isolation drags on, talking seals and Sedna's walrus emissary seem to visit him, playing havoc with his belongings and his sanity and offering critique.

Lee has fun depicting Guy as he farcically contends with sunburnt eyes, potential starvation, and 24-hour sunlight, but this humor serves a dead serious purpose, showing the "litany of offenses" outsiders commit when they force their way into places where they don't belong.

Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey" and the poetry collection "Where Are the Snows," winner of the X.J. Kennedy Prize.


By: Murray Lee.

Publisher: Publiterati, 342 pages, $17.95.