I was feeling adrift. It had been forever since a book had gripped me viscerally and not let me go until the final page. THE NORTH WATER by Ian McGuire was the cure for my every literary ennui. Beyond being a book I couldn’t put down, it was one I didn’t want to finish, realizing on the very first page how rare a reading experience this would be.
The novel is ceaselessly vivid, intellectually marvelous, and fearlessly graphic. McGuire writes with a poet’s attention to detail and a ferocious energy, spiced with touches of unexpected humor.
It’s 1857. A Yorkshire whaler called “the Volunteer” sits in port about to depart for the rich hunting waters of the Arctic near Greenland. Mr. Baxter, a cunning financier, assembles his men: Captain Brownlee, considered “unlucky” by the nervous crew who remember a badly bungled previous voyage; Henry Drax, a drunk brute harpooner who—driven only by his next desire—commits sodomy and murder as a hobby; and the narrator, Dr. Patrick Sumner, an Irish surgeon dishonorably discharged from the army. With little money, Sumner has no better option than to try to restart his life as the ship’s medic on this filthy, violent, doomed voyage.
Once at sea, a young boy complains of general pains; on closer examination horrific sexual abuse is discovered. Drax is suspected but denies everything. When the boy’s body turns up in the hold, missing a tooth, at the same time that Drax asks Sumner to have a look at an infected bite in his arm where a tooth is lodged, Drax is put in chains. But the savage Drax is also an able seaman—therefore needed onboard—however vile he may be, and he is freed.
Soon, terrible storms and the freezing darkness of an Arctic winter set in, isolating the men in an unforgiving world as the ship becomes embedded in land ice, crushed.
Thus the war between Sumner and Drax plays out, as they are stranded among the Inuit people on an isolated land floe that leads them to a to-the-death chase all the way to London. There, the double-crossing financier Mr. Baxter orchestrates an encounter, sending them to each other’s throats one final time.
There is no white whale, no maniacal Captain Ahab in THE NORTH WATER. There are multiple murders, sexual assault, and graphic descriptions of whale and seal killings: in fact, never have I read such brilliant depictions of the harpooning and flensing of a whale—a raw, bloody business. Lean, spare, and unflinching, THE NORTH WATER is an inspired novel that’s destined to become a classic.