The North Water
Author: Ian McGuire
Taut and tensile, The North Water splashes into the sea of pain and gore of the whaling ships and men that poured their muscle and brawn into the harpoons of yesteryear. Reminiscent of Moby Dick and Old Man and the Sea, McGuire casts the same melancholy harsh brutality into the nets of prose that ponders the good and evil of both man and element. As the two main characters, Henry Drax and Patrick Sumner provide a polarity of the good and bad in man and universe. Drax serves as a harpooner on the Volunteer, a whaler ship bound for the cruel hunting waters of the Arctic Circle. He is a psychopath, with no qualms or conscience about killing or anything else. Patrick Sumner is a surgeon thrown from the army with a ruined reputation, and with no better chance at a job than serving on the Volunteer as the medical officer. The captain of the ship is named Brownlee, and he has sunk a whaler in the past. His men are not too sure of his competence nor is he of theirs.
Having served in the army in India during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner has seen every abomination possible, but when he encounters Drax, he is positive that nothing more venial and evil has every crossed his path before.
When a sodomized cabin boy is murdered, the wrong man, Cavendish, is accused of the crime and chained in the hold. Drax is the sodomizer and murderer, but he sets Cavendish up for the child’s death. Due to Sumner’s push, eventually the truth comes out, and Drax is chained and Cavendish let free, but it serves no purpose when the ship flails and sinks when it hits an iceberg. The men are trapped on ice with very little supplies and no way of getting back, and as the frozen tundra negates the men’s ability to survive, the evil of Drax begins to affect the other men. As they exist, they perish, in violence and horror. All die, except Sumner.
With prose staccato and as turbulent as the men’s emotions, this novel trills with hidden motives, unforeseen brutality and one man’s attempt to survive it all. As Sumner and Drax accept their roles of good and evil, the rest of the characters sloop toward the middle. Sumner, although flawed, tries his best to remain human.
An annihilating and authentic portrait of death and survival in the 1800’s and the whaling industry itself, The North Water is so brilliantly written that every wave, every character swells with action. The novel erupts into a time and place both harrowing, sly, eerie and palpable; this is a novel you will not put down until the last page.
Available March 14, 2017
Ratings are based on a 5-star scale
Review by Broad “A”
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