“The North Water, Ian McGuire’s savage new novel about a 19th-century Arctic whaling expedition, is a great white shark of a book — swift, terrifying, relentless and unstoppable.” NY Times
A Review of
THE NORTH WATER by Ian McGuire
As you know, I love a great sea story, but it’s only once every few years that a great new one comes along. For this reason, I’m always on the look out for a nautical yarn that will hit me like a punch in the gut. Not that I like to be punched in the gut–I mean this metaphorically. When I read a book, especially a sea story, I want it leave a dent in my hull. So, for me, a former Navy sailor who likes a powerful rush, I greatly enjoy reading tales of adventure, crime, violence, horror, saucy romance and thrills, preferably set aboard a ship at sea or among sailors visiting a port of call. Today, I’m happy to report that THE NORTH WATER by Ian McGuire meets all my requirements for a great sea story.
I knew right away I was going to buy and read this book after opening it at the book store and reading the first paragraph. We have one of the main characters emerging from an alley, “he rubs his bristled head, and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money’s worth.” And, of course, I’m standing there in the book store wondering if this character has just paid for a meal or a whore, and what residue exactly is he sucking from his fingers? I liked the fact that the author was doing nasty things to my mind and for this reason I decided immediately to purchase and read this book. The answer to the question: What was the character licking from his fingers? is not answered, but it doesn’t matter because the character, Henry Drax, quickly becomes so much more horrifying with each ensuing sentence.
After that initial shock, I wanted (and received) so much more. The author delivers plenty of dents, scratches and shocks to the reader’s imagination as the voyage of this story runs along. Without giving away any spoilers, here’s an excerpt from one of the book’s many glowing reviews:
“The North Water,” Ian McGuire’s savage new novel about a 19th-century Arctic whaling expedition, is a great white shark of a book — swift, terrifying, relentless and unstoppable. It is also as epically bloody as a Jacobean drama or a Cormac McCarthy novel. One man has his head bashed with a brick, and “there is a fine spray of blood and a noise like a wet stick snapping.” Another is bludgeoned with a piece of whalebone. A sailor is nearly decapitated with a saw blade. Two boys are raped and murdered. Two Eskimo hunters are killed while they sleep. And an oarsman’s arm is ripped off by a polar bear.” (NY Times Book Review, by Michiko Kakutani)
Continuing along in the spirit of this NY Times review, I’ll tell you (without spoilers) that there are countless things the author sets on the page that are blatantly objectionable. In addition to those actions mentioned above, The North Water describes drunkenness, whoring about, several surgeries performed without anesthesia, the killing of adorable and endangered animals, double crossing bad guys, shipwrecks, near death experiences, no-strings-attached sex with a married Eskimo woman, and many putrid odors. Quite a few authors attempt to write about these sorts of things, but most authors lack the literary chops to pull it off successfully. For example, consider the difference between an Oscar winning film (say John Travolta in Pulp Fiction) and a B-rated flick (say John Travolta in Be Cool). Well, now that you have those films in mind, please understand that Ian McGuire’s The North Water is an Oscar winner written for the big screen inside your mind.
“Here’s the description copied off the book’s Amazon description page for the recently-released paperback (this hooked me right way):
“Behold the man: stinking, drunk, and brutal. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the rich hunting waters of the arctic circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money, and no better option than to sail as the ship’s medic on this violent, filthy, and ill-fated voyage.
In India, during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which man can stoop. He had hoped to find temporary respite on the Volunteer, but rest proves impossible with Drax on board. The discovery of something evil in the hold rouses Sumner to action. And as the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic winter, the fateful question arises: who will survive until spring?
With savage, unstoppable momentum and the blackest wit, Ian McGuire’s The North Water weaves a superlative story of humanity under the most extreme conditions.”
So there you have it, all the ingredients that make for a wonderful sea story! Now, as I summarize my review, just in case there remains any doubt, let’s be absolutely clear that this book is for readers who enjoy rough characters in harsh environments committing brutal acts of violence. Supporting this thesis, the settings include harbor towns in England and isolated bays east of Greenland. Further, the characters are all the lowliest whalers living aboard a wooden ship on an ill-fated voyage. All this the author sets down on the page in such a way as to make you shiver in the biting cold as you come to know all the sleazy characters personally. Best of all, every grimy scene is described with exacting precision and literary artistry.
After reading this tale in only 3-days, I slipped it onto my book shelf right between two similar favorites; Jack London’s Sea Wolf and Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time.
The North Water is available at Powell’s Books.
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If you enjoy a good Sea Story, these two salty tales
are free on all eReaders:
Nook, Smashwords and Kobo
Malcolm Torres is the author and editor of sea stories and nautical fiction.
For more information go to the Ships & Sailors Blog