The North Water draws its parts from a long literary tradition as elements of Conrad and Melville inform McGuire’s storytelling.
The past is a filthy place, one of murderous men who care not for the value of human life. That is if you believe The North Water, Ian McGuire’s novel about a whaling voyage gone awry. Although many critics have compared McGuire’s vision to the work of Cormac McCarthy, The North Water takes place not in the arid expanse of the American West, but in the icy isolation of the Arctic Sea. His vision of the 19th century is a bleak one; it’s a world where men exist on a day-to-day basis, surviving as if the future is limited, at best. In his vividly descriptive prose, writing crafted with the same precision of an ornate jewelry box, McGuire finds a way for the stench and awfulness of his milieu to leap from the page to create a horrifying experience for all the senses.
McGuire begins the book by introducing us to his villain, Henry Drax. A harpooner on furlough, he murders a man with a brick to the head and then proceeds to rape and kill a young boy. He is a man with no moral compass, one who sees breathing and killing as equal functions of the human body. Soon we meet McGuire’s protagonist, a disgraced, drug-addicted Irish surgeon named Patrick Sumner. Wounded in battle and no longer employable, Sumner finds work on the whaling ship out of Hull, England, that Drax works on.
The North Water draws its parts from a long literary tradition as elements of Conrad and Melville inform McGuire’s storytelling. While the novel’s plot is fairly straightforward, the whaling expedition hurtles Drax and Sumner towards a fateful showdown by the book’s end, McGuire’s immaculate writing elevates its simple story to high art. He also digs deep in classic themes, exploring the notions of evil and its existence.
Also, neatly bundled into The North Water are the three basic elements of storytelling: man vs. man; man vs. nature; and man vs. himself. We already know that Drax and Sumner are destined to clash, especially when the surgeon exposes the pedophilic rapist for what he is midway through the short book. However, Sumner must first contend with his own demons before he can reach redemption. Before the expedition, he was a surgeon in India during the Siege of Delhi. After a horrific accident there, one that ruined his reputation as a doctor, Sumner’s resolve and self-esteem were destroyed. A journey to the Arctic seemed like the natural way to escape. The North Water does not present us with a sterling hero. Instead, Sumner must find his own way to recovery before he even dreams of taking on the evil in Drax.
Meanwhile, Drax isn’t the only malevolent force on the journey. McGuire describes the slaughter of seals, whales and polar bears in graphic detail, making The North Water a difficult read for the faint of heart. Winter is approaching and while most whaling ships are turning south, the captain and his first mate make the decision to push north, towards the ever-growing fields of ice. Sumner soon realizes the journey is more than he bargained for when tragedies begin to mount and the crew is stranded, forced to fight against the elements. Much like In the Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides’ recent investigation of the sinking of the USS Jeannette, The North Water catalogs the perils awaiting men in the Arctic. As the number of men dwindles, things begin to look hopeless for Sumner and the others.
The North Water may be grisly, but McGuire peppers the novel with enough mystery to grip the reader. Salvation may seem impossible in such a brutal world, but McGuire finds a way for deliverance to filter through the darkness. A riveting maelstrom of a novel, The North Water shows a master writer at work. It is a book that not only demonstrates research and a vital understanding of the past, but a fecund imagination that strains against the confines of historical fiction and propels the genre to a new peak.