It’s Bloody. Raw. Violent. Bleak.
The North Water by Ian McGuire long listed for the Man Booker 2016, is a gripping novel that oozes darkness on every page. Exactly what’s needed from a thriller. Add to that a fantastic sense of 1840’s andy a sublime rendition of the Arctic landscape and you have the best historical thriller I’ve read for years by a long way.
Is The North Water a Booker winner though? Is it even a shortlist candidate? I’m thinking a definite no to the first question and only a maybe to the second. Why? Because as exceptionally well written as this novel is, it’s not a very literary piece of prose and doesn’t push the boundaries of its genre in a way I expect a Booker winner to do. Within its own genre it’s a magnificent accomplishment. Maybe thats what the judges are looking for – excellence and readability in one hit. But when I stack it up against previous winners I don’t see it in contention.
But….. those comments shouldn’t be taken as a reason to push this book to one side. For if you love plot driven novels, especially ones which are as meticulously constructed as this one and as persuasively authentic in terms of period detail, this is definitely a book to add to the wishlist.
Be warned, some the language may be considered ‘ripe’ but recognise this is a book with a seafaring cast of characters used to hardship and calling a spade a spade. There are also some passages that are not for the squeamish since McGuire pulls no punches about the brutal and bloody business of whaling in the 1840s nor of the harshness of character such work engenders. But this isn’t gratuitous blood and guts stuff, this is a novel realistic about a business in which only the most nimble, selfish and ruthless whalers will survive.
The most ruthless of them is Henry Drax. He’s a harpooner on the whaling ship The Volunteer which is about to set off from England on a six month voyage to Greenland. Within the first few pages we get the measure of this character. He’s killed a man who crossed him in a bar, and beaten unconscious and raped a young black street urchin without hesitation or consciousness. Death to Drax is a pleasure a matter of pride when executed to perfection.
Drax goes swiftly through the motions; one action following the next, passionless and precise, machine like, but not mechanical. He grasps onto the world like a dog biting into a bone – nothing is obscure to him, nothing is separate from his fierce and surly appetites. What the nigger boy used to be has now disappeared. He is gone completely and something else, something wholly different, has appeared instead.
The opening scene is a portent of the ills that will befall The Volunteer once the voyage is underway. Further omens follow: the captain is the only survivor of a previous whale boat disaster (the only crew member among 18 to survive) which makes his new crew rather jittery and they are not even aware of a secret discussion he olds with the boat’s owner. Then there is a new surgeon Patrick Sumner, nursing a wound from his days with the army in India. He claims he wants a period of calm (a whaling mission seems a bit of odd way to get recuperation) before claiming an inherited piece of land in Ireland. But he has rather too much of an affection for laudanam and his own dark role in a tragedy which caused his dismissal from the regiment under a cloud.
Sumner is the only character who really evolves and develops through the novel. The other characters exist mainly to propel the book forward and to set up some tension so we are not clear who are the good guys and who is not to be trusted. Sumner finds he is no match for wilds of Alaska and its animal inhabitants. There time on the ice fields sees them hunt bears and slaughter seals and whales but ultimately their natural skills and inner resources prove inadequate when faced with the unrelenting, indifferent force of nature. Only Sumner learns to adapt but even then the change is his persona is not permanent.
All of this is a story told in a language that is far from subtle but superbly evocative. McGuire has a talent for creating descriptions that are visceral, sensory and direct.
Many of the memorable images relate to the crew’s battle with the animals that inhabit the ice field but they also relate to the landscape itself.
Here are a few examples:
A sea captain shoots a crew member , splattering “an aureole of purplish brain matter” on the wall.
When the sailors kill a polar bear:
… a great purple gout of blood comes steaming to the surface and spreads like India ink across her ragged white coat. The air is filled with a foetid blast of butchery and excrement.
Later in the book when Sumner pursues a cub bear for miles across the ice field he is spooked by a cry behind him:
… a sudden uprising bellow, a vast symphonic how, pained, primeval, yet human nonetheless; a cry beyond words and language it seems to him, choral, chronic, like the conjoined voices of the damned.
Returning one evening to a missionary’s lonely hut, Sumner sees the borealis
… unwinding across the night sky in peristaltic bands of green and purple, like the loosely coiled innards of a far-fetched mythic beast.
Within a few pages Sumner will get rather close to the innards of the missionary when he has to operate on an abscessed stomach releasing a cataract of “foul and flocculent pus”. Yuk…
This is a novel best not read when you’ve just eaten or are about to eat ….
But don’t let that put you off. You can always do the equivalent of my tactic faced with a gory bit on TV or in a film and hide behind a cushion…
Author: The North Water by Ian McGuire
Published: 2016 by Simon and Schuster
Length: 326 pages
My copy: borrowed from the library so I could at least read some of the Man Booker 2016 long listed titles
Other reviewers thoughts: Not all bloggers have rated this book as highly as I did. For other persectives take a look at alternative reviews see The Readers’ Room via this link and Bellezza’s thoughts here