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: 

    Brief Thoughts: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

    I did it! I finally read a Gillian Flynn novel. I had this one on hold since last year.

    • Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
      • Rating: ★★★
      •  I chose to read this Flynn novel because I’d heard it was her best and didn’t contain the aspects of Gone Girl that didn’t appeal to me.
      • If I regularly liked to read mysteries/thrillers, this is the kind I would read. The story is very dark and bleak, with some mild graphic violence (is that an oxymoron…).Poverty, amateur detectivism, abuse, teen shenanigans, failings of the justice system, and ‘satanic worship’ all play key roles.
      • I liked that the main character was meant to be ‘unlikeable’, but you could still sympathize and understand why she acted the way she did. She wasn’t too awful. However, I didn’t really connect with her or any of the characters. They were just actors in the plot for me.
        • I did think her change of thought towards her brother was too abrupt. She changes her mind with little prompting or emotional debate about what’s true. Granted, she doesn’t completely change her mind, but she opens it more quickly than I expected.
      • I’d never read a story set during the 1980s ‘satanic panic’. I thought of Criminal Minds and how one of the characters debunked Satanic cults, and I thought of a course I took in university about new religious movements (many people would call them ‘cults’). It was pretty strange to think that people really believed in that – I mean, that people believed Satan worshipers were engaging in all sorts of terrible activity.
      • The story gripped my attention. I read it after work in two evenings. It was just the sort of distraction I needed.
      • I don’t think I’ll watch the movie. Too bleak for me!

    Review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

    Author: Maggie Mitchell
    Title: Pretty Is
    Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley
    Published: 7 July 2015
    Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
    Length: 320 pages
    Genre: Literary fiction + dash of thriller
    Why I Read: Pretty cover, gripping premise
    Read If You’re: Intrigued by the copy description
    Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
    Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

    The summer precocious Lois and pretty Carly May were twelve years old, they were kidnapped, driven across the country, and held in a cabin in the woods for two months by a charismatic stranger. Nearly twenty years later, Lois has become a professor, teaching British literature at a small college in upstate New York, and Carly May is an actress in Los Angeles, drinking too much and struggling to revive her career. When a movie with a shockingly familiar plot draws the two women together once more, they must face the public exposure of their secret history and confront the dark longings and unspeakable truths that haunt them still. Maggie Mitchell’s Pretty Is beautifully defies ripped-from-the-headlines crime story expectations and announces the debut of a masterful new storytelling talent.

    I can’t remember how this book came on my radar, but it was some months ago. Every now and then I check NetGalley to see if books on my ‘upcoming publication’ shelf are available. I was very excited when this one finally showed up!

    I like many aspects of this novel. I like the prose and the style of narrative. Mitchell writes with a strong voice and her prose injects the story with tension. The first page hooked me. The alternating perspectives of Lois and Carly May balance each other well. I like how it’s a story about stories within stories and about blurring the line between fiction, non-fiction and our own personal lives. I also enjoyed the plot. After Lois is reunited with her parents:

     They could not sit on the couch because Carly was sprawled out beside me; instead, awkwardly, they reached their thin, tanned arms out to me, inviting me to stand and be embraced. Which I did, automatically; but I found no comfort. Their arms felt insubstantial, their eyes held too many questions I knew they’d never be able to ask, their fear was wordless and stiff. (18%)

    The plot developed in a direction I wasn’t at all anticipating. When I read the blurb – “a movie with a shockingly familiar plot draws the two women together once more” – I assumed that the story of their kidnapping was widely known, that someone decided to profit off their story without their involvement, and they reconnect through some sort of entanglement with that. I found the actual plot more intriguing and creative than that. I liked that the book description didn’t give it away. I don’t like descriptions that describe a major plot point that doesn’t happen until 100+ pages in the novel. Pretty Is‘s major premise is established 6% in, but I still appreciated that it came as a surprise. The plot is built on some pretty outrageous coincidences that you know would never happen in real life, but well-written fiction like this allows makes it believable. I’d say this novel is plot driven, but the characters are central to the plot’s success – does the plot make the characters or do the characters make the plot?

    Please note: This paragraph contains minor spoilers! Read at your own risk.  I noticed two points made by other reviewers that I disagree with. One is that Lois’ behavior seems unnatural or out of character. Lois’ sanity is called into question by at least herself, Carly May and Sean. (Quote from Carly May: “Only one of us can be batshit crazy, I tell myself. I have a sneaking sort of feeling that Lois – rational, orderly Lois – might have claimed that role” [83%]). I didn’t question it while reading – in fact, I wondered why everyone was thinking she was crazy. I’m terrible with unreliable narrators because I take everything they say at face value. When Lois was speaking, I though, ‘Yeah, you’re right’, but in retrospect, how she deals with her creepy stalker is definitely not right. I don’t think this is poor writing – having Lois, an otherwise solid woman, acting ‘out of character’ with her stalker. I think it shows that she is a little bit off and shows how the kidnapping affected her. The second point is that the conclusion is abrupt and/or unsatisfying. I dislike such conclusions, but I found Pretty Is‘s conclusion to be neither of those things. I had all the answers I wanted, and I was satisfied with where the characters ended up.There is a spike in the ‘thrills’, but I was totally absorbed and carried along all the ups and downs it brought.

    In genre above, I labeled this book ‘literary fiction + dash of thriller’. Another person might label it ‘chick lit thriller’ or ‘contemporary’. What genre is this book?! Who decides genres, anyhow? Are they useful to anyone beyond the person doing the labelling? I’ve learned over the past years the stories I love the most can be found in the general fiction of a bookstore or library, even though they often have strong touches of fantasy or terror. For me, Pretty Is feels ‘literary’ with a hint of thriller – just a hint; I wouldn’t call it ‘a thriller’, it’s just the nature of part of the plot. Then again, maybe it’s because I was so focused on the ‘literary fiction’ parts of the book that I can’t accept it’s more of a thriller, like how I can’t imagine Paper Towns as a ‘mystery’. I’m sure there are people who would laugh at me calling this book ‘literary’. Maybe it’s just contemporary fiction? What’s the difference between the two, anyhow? (Says the English major…) I do use the two labels separately here on my blog, but they really just follow my own impression of the book… I don’t know what the actual definitions or differences between the two terms are. Conclusion: Labels can be as tricky as ratings when describing books!

    The Bottom Line: If the plot intrigues you at all, give it a go. Much better than the few other after kidnapping stories I’ve read, this would be a great read to curl up with during an evening at the cottage.

    Further Reading: