A ship sets sail with a killer on board . . .
1859. A man joins a whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle. Having left the British Army with his reputation in tatters, Patrick Sumner has little option but to accept the position of ship’s surgeon on this ill-fated voyage. But when, deep into the journey, a cabin boy is discovered brutally killed, Sumner finds himself forced to act. Soon he will face an evil even greater than he had encountered at the siege of Delhi, in the shape of Henry Drax: harpooner, murderer, monster . . .
Yes. That is all you get, to pique your curiosity as you’re about to buy this book. Short and sweet and to the point. Says it all, without saying too much. As blurbs go, this one is close to genius. It works so well that I did indeed buy the book.
So. The review. The North Water by Ian McGuire is a literary novel that, in the words of Colm Tóibín , is ‘riveting and darkly brilliant’ . It’s there, on the cover. Splashed out for all to view. If that doesn’t sell you the book, however, maybe Hilary Mantel’s opinion, found quoted on the front page of the kindle edition, will be able to sway you: ‘Brilliant, fast-paced, gripping. A tour de force of narrative tension and a masterful reconstruction of a lost world.‘ How’s that for a sales pitch?
The North Water tells the story of Patrick Sumner, a former army doctor during the uprisings in India, and a man wronged by the workings of the old-boy’s-network at the base of the British class system and colonial power hierarchies. Dismissed from his post in disgrace, Sumner is in search of redemption, and that is how we find him in Yorkshire, about to join the crew of the whaling ship Volunteer.
Also integrating the Volunteer‘s crew is amoral, psychopathic Henry Drax, who lusts for young boys’ flesh and the thrill of the kill after raping them. It is this character the book starts by introducing, by way of the quite memorable, 4-syllable sentence, ‘Behold the man‘ — which is in everything reminiscent of Moby Dick’s famous first line, ‘Call me Ishmael’.
These two men, Patrick Sumner and Henry Drax, will be pitted against each other in a cat and mouse game of wits throughout the expedition and after, as the Volunteer sails in its ill-fated last voyage to the Arctic, and Sumner tries to uncover, on the one hand. who’s responsible for the violent crimes happening along their journey; and, on the other hand, what secret the Captain and Drax are sharing regarding the Volunteer and this last whaling trip they have all just embarked on.
It is indeed a beautiful and powerful book. Its reconstruction of 19th Century whaling and port culture, the life on board the ships and during the expeditions, and the days, thoughts and strife of their crews, is done in such a way and with such vivid and graphic detail that it makes the story particularly convincing and immersing.
The first thing that strikes you is the language, which is unadorned and almost brutal, all guts and gore as befits the historical times and the story; this contributes in a great measure to the realism and feeling of authenticity of the narrative. McGuire’s choice of register was indeed inspired, as it is what ultimately makes the book the visceral and gripping read it turns out to be.
It is not, however, a read for the faint of heart. Its descriptions of whaling and sealing, of the crimes, and of smells and sensations, are quite raw and gory and bloody and, at times, a bit stomach-churning — as much as the whole story with the bear cub is heart-breaking.
As I read through, I found it reminiscent of Herman Melville’s classic tale Moby Dick and also, though to a lesser extent, of Ahab’s Wife; or The Star Gazer. However, in many ways it will also remind you of Dickens, especially in the quality and richness of the narrative detail and style.
All in all, I felt in amazing company, all the more so as The North Water is not a rehashing of those two authors’ styles and voices, but a novel displaying its author’s original, fresh and powerful voice. That it has made me want to re-read Melville’s and Sena Jeter Naslund is perhaps the greatest praise I could give it. It is a visceral, compelling, immersing, eschatological novel, which has been elsewhere described as a ‘startling achievement’, and I for one recommend its reading most vehemently. Full marks, most definitely.
…and a little trivia:
Three different covers…? Most definitely. The one in the featured image (left) is the cover for the paperback and, recently, also for the kindle edition. The illustration above, of an Arctic scene of fur clad men trying to pull a ship out of trouble and the title in large black type between two harpoons, is from the hardback cover. Finally, the first thumbnail I included in the text is an image now retired, but which was the cover of the kindle on the date I bought it (17 September 2016).
Which is your favourite cover? I love the original kindle cover, with it’s light, neutral coloured background, and despite the fact that it reminds me of the graphic design for the cover of McGuire’s first book. I’m sorry it’s been retired. In my opinion, it was a much more classic (and classy?) design, and in many respects it could be deemed a bit punchier; the all blue setup with is more dramatic, and perhaps ‘gutsier’, with its larger white type, but I don’t feel it has the same impact.
The hardback cover, with its scene of Arctic shipwreck toil, comes a rather close second for me.
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥ ♥
Shelf: My Favourite(st) Books