The North Water by Ian McGuire
Henry Holt and Co., 2016; 272 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Ian McGuire’s whaling novel, The North Water, is an enthralling, brutal book, like Moby Dick by way of Deadwood. Many historical novels try to transport readers back to the past, but few succeed to the degree that The North Water does. McGuire walks the reader through the squalor and the violence, where you can practically smell the horrid stench of the docks and feel grime on your fingers just by turning the page. His is a visceral novel that feels like McGuire must have lived it, and you wonder how he survived.
The North Water follows the men aboard a nineteenth-century whaler called the Volunteer. Among the salty crew is Patrick Sumner, a disgraced former army surgeon who previously served during the Siege of Delhi. With limited options for what he can do in the wake of his discharge, Sumner becomes the physician aboard the Volunteer. From the moment he arrives, Sumner is at odds with Drax, a harpooner of considerable cunning and ruthlessness who challenges the limits of Sumner’s mind, body, and spirit. When a young crewman is found sexually assaulted aboard the Volunteer, a series of events escalate, forcing Sumner to use all his wits to survive on the ship and out in the frozen landscape.
What I found so visceral about The North Water was the uncompromising intensity of McGuire’s prose which does not sidestep the cruelty of the world and those who inhabit it. I was reminded of Michael Faber’s novel The Crimson Petal and the White which similarly dropped the readers into an uncompromising view of Victorian-era prostitution in all its sordid detail. As compelling as the plot is, The North Water shines most in McGuire’s ability to make us feel like we’ve teetered on the edge of hell, barely avoiding the descent.