Title: The North Water
Author: Ian McGuire
Genre: Fiction (Historical)
Release Date: February 1, 2016
“A 19th-century whaling ship sets sail for the Arctic with a killer aboard in this dark, sharp and highly original tale that grips like a thriller.
Behold the man: stinking, drunk, brutal and bloodthirsty, Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaling ship bound for the hunting waters of the Arctic Circle. Also aboard is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money and no better option than to embark as ship’s medic on this ill-fated voyage.
In India during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which a man can stoop and imagined he’d find respite on the Volunteer, but now, trapped in the wooden belly of the ship with Drax, he encounters pure evil and is forced to act. As the true purposes of the expedition become clear, the confrontation between the two men plays out in the freezing darkness of an Arctic winter.” (Simon & Schuster Australia)
Ian McGuire’s The North Water is gripping from the opening sentences, when Henry Drax makes his first appearance, and is genuinely one of those books that are difficult to put down once you start reading. It is bleak and brutal in equal parts, and I feel that I should give fair warning that it’s not a book for those readers who prefer to steer clear of violence. It is quite graphic in places and I have no doubt that some will find it a little too much. But for those who can handle extreme violence, coarse language, and genuinely horrible people, then The North Water will be well worth your time.
From the outset, the reader knows that Henry Drax is a man up to no good. The downside to this is that there is no great mystery to be solved by the reader and no shocking reveals. However, this doesn’t detract from the plot in anyway. Instead it builds a tension that increases to a point well beyond breaking as we watch Drax, knowing what and who he is, and wait for him to commit his next crime. Meanwhile, we must sit by idly as we watch the other characters interact with him, with no knowledge of what he is capable of. It makes for an unsettling and intense read at times, but riveting nonetheless.
Patrick Sumner is much more reader friendly and we are given insight into the sort of man he is through flashbacks to his time in India during the Indian Rebellion against British rule in 1857; it is here that we learn what caused him to take a berth on the ‘Volunteer’ in the first place. He starts out as a less than interesting character, but by the end he’s one who you would probably want at your side when things take a turn for the worst.
McGuire’s writing is beautiful to read, despite being peppered with slaughter. From the murky docks of Yorkshire, to the creaking hull of the ship, and all the way to the war and blood of Delhi, he has clearly taken great care to ensure that the reader has a proper sense of place while reading. But it’s the landscape of the Arctic Circle that stands out above the rest – it is striking in how stark, cold, and unforgiving it is. Despite this, McGuire makes the desolateness and isolation of the place beautiful in its own way.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see The North Water on a few nomination lists for literary awards in the coming months – it’s definitely an early favourite of mine for my own personal ’Top Read of the Year’. Not only is it wonderfully written but, being set towards the end of the era when whaling was highly profitable, the historical aspect of it is interesting as we get a glimpse at what merchants would do in order to keep their businesses afloat. At a little over 270 pages it’s a perfectly paced, quick read that is likely to keep the reading wanting more from the first page to the last.
*This review first appeared in The Australia Times – Books magazine.