The North Water is a book I suspect I’m not meant to have enjoyed. For one, it’s undeniably ‘masculine’: a miasma of semen, blood and sweat. The only women in it are whores, largely unnamed background characters that function as little more than orifices for rent. It is also a book about whaling. And I’m on the side of the whales.
Last year I read about the incredible fate of the whaleship Essex (In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick). In short, the Essex was attacked by a sperm whale in the southern Pacific Ocean, the crew forced to take to the open sea in hastily mended whaling boats before resorting to cannibalism. The accounts of survivors were thought to have inspired Moby Dick. The North Water was sold to me as “Moby Dick with a murder mystery”. At least I was prepared for the imagery of blood exploding from blowholes, decks slick with gore and oil…
In The North Water, Ian McGuire presents a cast of thoroughly unlikeable characters, chiefly plotting Henry Drax – a thuggish, sadistic whaler – against Patrick Sumner – laudanum-addicted, disgraced surgeon. There is little opportunity for compassion or salvation on the deck of a whaling ship such as the Volunteer.
The book begins with a powerfully understated opening:
Behold the man.
Yet this is not the gentleman of some Naploeanic-era saga, handsome in a loose white shirt. I’ve read seafaring classics of this oft-romanticized historical period, like the Hornblower series and Master and Commander, which draw images of a time of honour. Not here. In the first chapter alone, Drax beats and rapes a boy he estimates at being near twelve years old. The violence doesn’t stop there. McGuire takes vicious realism to the next level, mercilessly detailing events such as the killing of a polar bear and the capture of her cub, who mewls and paws at her body, and unflinchingly focusing on bodily fluids: faecal matter, vomit, sperm, and, of course, blood. It is the very stuff of butchery, reflecting an animalistic, nihilistic, worldview.
The fucking, the killing, the shitting, the eating. They could come in any order at all.
Perhaps the sheer volume of violence undermines the power of the story: an injection of hope and humanity could leverage the brutality. This, combined with a villainous endgame that resembles the showdown in an action film, were the weaknesses in what was otherwise a stunning and startling read.