Books

Ian McGuire
The North Water

A whaling novel that begins with a three-word sentence, The North Water gives us the story of Patrick Sumner, a hapless Irish medic with a nose for hellish postings. As an army surgeon, he survived the 1857 Siege of Delhi with a bullet-shattered leg and a court martial. Now, disgraced, he seeks to redeem – or else doom – himself as ship’s surgeon aboard the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the Arctic Circle.

It’s inadvisably late in the season to be heading so far north. The ice is closing in and, besides, with the Greenland waters over-hunted, the whaling trade is floundering. But the Volunteer is heavily insured and has at its helm a captain who (besides all his limbs) has a ruinous reputation and sailing orders that make a safe return to port seem a doubtful bet. Also aboard is Henry Drax: harpooner, murderer, cannibal, rapist of street urchins and cabin boys, malign spirit incarnate and, we can be sure from the outset, Sumner’s nemesis.

Sumner is a broken man, numbed by laudanum, willing his own annihilation; yet only through flashbacks do we get hints of what landed him here – or rather, what set him so adrift. What we see of his experience in the Raj is no less brutal and soul-searing than the perdition aboard the ice-bound Volunteer, but at least it makes for a change of scenery. In fact, The North Water is decidedly cinematic in shape, pacing and texture. Perhaps it seems the more so because its release coincides with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, with which it shares a subzero locale, a moral dynamic, and a scene in which its hero utilises a dead beast’s steaming innards as a space blanket.

Mindful of the expression “swears like a sailor”, McGuire, a native of the Volunteer’s home port of Hull, uses up the whole jar of fucks and cunts, to no very persuasive effect. Mostly, though, he resists over-colouring the period detail, to ably render a horse-drawn world that doesn’t call attention to itself.

Unremittingly grim and profane, The North Water is a punishing read, suffused with the dull inevitability of violence. Blunt object, sharp blade, tooth, gun or harpoon: none miss their mark. Sumner’s instinct for decency, we are meant to see, has been all but bludgeoned out of him. The glimmer that remains – his potential for redemption – is all that keeps this blood-drenched novel afloat.  FL

Scribner, 336pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2016 as "The North Water, Ian McGuire". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL