The North Water

The North WaterFinally! Finally! A book on this year’s Booker longlist that I’m excited about. I liked Work Like Any Other just fine, but none of the others I’ve read did much for me. I’m hoping this is a turnaround point.

I have a weakness for cold-weather disasters, and I’m a fan of Patrick O’Brian, and, to be perfectly honest, I’ve been craving plot, so Ian McGuire’s novel about a 19th-century whaling expedition gone wrong was just right. I groaned and gasped all the way through this book.

The main character of The North Water is a surgeon named Patrick Sumner. He has some dark secrets from his time with the army in Delhi, and serving on the Volunteer‘s journey to the Arctic is a chance to escape his memories and earn a little money. But the journey is ill-fated from the start, thanks to an insurance scheme cooked up by the ship’s owner and the presence of the monstrous Henry Drax.

If you’re looking for a nautical adventure along the lines of O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books, you’re better off looking elsewhere. McGuire offers none of O’Brian’s light touch. All of the many misfortunes of the Volunteer are described in excruciating detail. No drop of blood or bodily fluid is left unmentioned. This type of explicitness sometimes annoys me in proto-Victorian novels, but it works here. This is a brutal world, and not just in comparison to our own. It’s brutal for its time.

As much as I enjoyed this, I don’t have a lot to say about it. It’s heavy on plot, well-paced, and well-written. The focus is on the action, and the action is focused on survival. There are few moments of introspection, although I was struck by a moment late in the book when the men of the Volunteer, having come face-to-face with an unanticipated act of abominable evil, are described as “unable to parse the world implied by such events.” That’s a remarkably good description of what facing down evil can feel like. How can one parse such a world?

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18 Responses to The North Water

  1. Rohan says:

    OK, I’m tempted! In spite of (or is it really because of?) the bodily fluids … ;-)

  2. Jeanne says:

    That is a good description. I don’t see the word “parse” much.

  3. whatmeread says:

    I’m just trying to read the short list, and this one didn’t make it. But it sounds good, so maybe I’ll try to keep track of it.

  4. Elle says:

    It is good, isn’t it? The writing is so competent and evocative at the same time. For those thinking of reading this: be warned, the first chapter is not only physically graphic but also deeply disturbing, and there’s a second, similar episode later on. They don’t last long but they are long-lasting, IYSWIM.

    • Teresa says:

      Good caveat there. I’m glad he did start with that incident, so readers would know right away if the violence wouldn’t be for them, but squeamish and easily triggered readers might not want to start.

      I’m becoming more and more appreciative of a well-turned plot, and this book has that. The pace of it is excellent, and it avoids gimmicky twists.

  5. Deb says:

    I knew nothing whatsoever about this book when I read a recent review that focused almost entirely on Henry Drax and his Anton Chigurh-like invincible and relentless evil. In fact, Sumner was not even mentioned by name, iirc. Frankly, the first review (well-written though it was) made me think, no, this is not for me. Your review, on the other hand, makes me want to give the book a try.

    • Teresa says:

      I can see why a reviewer would focus on Drax, and the Chigurh comparison is apt. I liked that McGuire went for it and made him unrelentingly evil instead of trying to psychologize him. But he leaves the story for a long stretch, and the book is really about Sumner’s learning to survive a brutal world, with Drax being one element of that brutality.

  6. I’m so glad you found a book you could really enjoy from this Man Booker Longlist reading!

  7. Stefanie says:

    Oh call me intrigued over this one! Do people get frozen in the cold? If I read this when it is 20 below outside will I feel warm in comparison?

  8. Leslie says:

    Definitely excited about this one!!

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