Review: The North Water by Ian McGuire

Author: Ian McGuire
Title: The North Water 
Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley 
Published: 11 February (UK)/15 March (North America)
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Literary thriller
Why I Read: Dark whaling tale
Read If You: Can stomach graphic, want to try Arctic ‘noir’
Rating★★★★ 
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

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?

I found this review tough to write. I enjoyed this book (to my own surprise!) but there’s a lot about it I feel that I need to ‘set straight’. I like to include the publishers description in my blog posts for books that aren’t yet published, but this time I do so with a hint of hesitation. Everyone’s impression of a book after reading one of these marketing descriptions will be different. However, I think there is an objective difference between the book I read and this blurb. Not a huge difference, but one that might influence your decision or whether or not to check out this book.  The North Water is Sumner’s story, not Drax’s. The two are not pitted in some sort of conflict the whole way through (which is what I expected after reading the description :P). If you’re wondering (like I did…) “How can they end up not killing each other? Are they each going to gather men to their sides?” etc., then you can put those thoughts to rest. Their conflict plays out naturally. Something else that might muddy your impressions of this tale is the first chapter, which focuses on Drax. If Drax disgusts you, and you find yourself thinking “How can I read a whole novel about this man??” – don’t worry, you won’t be reading a whole novel about him. That being said… Drax is not just evil incarnate. He’s a shocking, disgusting man, yet McGuire successfully puts some effort towards exploring why. There’s not a whole lot to the why – certainly nothing that attempts to justify Drax’s actions – just enough to make him all the more creepy.

This courtyard has become a place of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations, and Henry Drax is its wild, unholy engineer. (Loc128)

Going back to that first chapter… If you’ve heard anything about this book, you’ve probably heard that it’s graphic (applicable in this tale to that trinity of violence, sex and language). I don’t think I’d read anything this graphic before. It certainly made me uncomfortable at times, inducing a bit of stomach churning. I learnt from reading this book where that line of what I can and cannot stand lies. (The North Water is right on the border). Anything more graphic than this will be too unpleasant for me to bother reading. Chapter 1 functions as a warning, a shock to the system. It flashes, “If this is too icky for you, pick up another book.” But if that’s about as much as you can handle, then proceed. (If the entire book was like chapter 1, I couldn’t read it.)  The story doesn’t get worse than that. The graphic descriptions generally apply to bodily states and functions, rather than the actual acts being committed. Having said all that, the graphic descriptions don’t overwhelm the novel. I can count the descriptions of Drax’s violence on one hand. Those moments are intense and disgusting, yet they don’t become the entire story. There are other moments where you brace for the worst and it doesn’t happen. Attempting to avoid spoilers here. Just know that not everyone is as awful as you might expect. Finally, I’ll add that the foul language that seems too thick and cartoonish at the beginning eventually thins out, but the descriptions of unpleasant bodily functions never entirely cease. There’s a few spots where I commented “Is this really necessary? =.=” I’ll spare you the quotes.

“I’d venture the Good Lord don’t spend much time up here in the North Water,” he says with a smile. “It’s most probable he don’t like the chill.” (Loc1437)

Yup, I feel a bit weird writing my opening paragraph about how the book’s description and first chapter don’t give a good impression of what it’s about, but I wanted to clear that up. So that review was mostly me defending the book against gory claims…what can I say is good about The North Water? Quite a bit, actually! I loved the prose, the setting, and Sumner. The plot held my interest. What fuelled all this is probably that I had this intense feeling that I, the reader, being the averagely decent modern sort of human being that I am, would never encounter such scenes as those depicted within the tale. I know this sounds like a simple concept. Isn’t that why we read? To experience that which we would never otherwise experience? This book takes that experience to another level. I was keenly aware of the sorts of lives I will never interact with, let alone experience.

The men from the Zembla are dancing with the whores; they are all whooping and stamping their feet on the floorboards. The air is filling with sawdust and peat smoke. There is a warm, fetid odor of tobacco and ashes and stale beer. Drax looks disdainfully across at the dancers and then asks Sumner to buy him another whiskey. (Loc429)

The plot held my interest. It wasn’t wholly predictable, surprising me at times. (Thankfully, there were no twists of the WTF variety.) The rhythmic prose, however, drew me in more than the plot. McGuire can create an intense atmosphere, using precise yet evocative prose. I highlighted more great quotes than I should stuff into this post. (Also, I’ve rarely felt such emotion at the final line of a novel.) I also appreciated Sumner’s character arc. I’ve never encountered a character quite like him, one who finds himself facing such a dreadful situation. His development over the story had me glued to the page, wondering where he would end up. This is another book to add to your dark winter reading list. 

Although [Sumner] is certainly annoying, there is something admirable in his persistence. He is a dogged little fucker all in all. (Loc1509)

A small aside: I find ebooks super convenient for these historical novels. I can easily look up old slang, origins of words, historical events referenced in passing, all those little tidbits which flavour a novel that I would otherwise overlook.

The Bottom Line: A tale held together by gruesome events, you may nonetheless find The North Water a rewarding read. Setting, plot, prose, and characterization may all well captivate the reader who can grit their teeth and dig in.

 

Further Reading: