Finally! 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?