Title: The North Water
Author: Ian McGuire
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Summary (from inside flap): Behold the man: drunk, brutal, and bloodthirsty. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the hunting waters of the Arctic Circle. Also aboard is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation and no better option than to embark as the 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, 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 clearer, the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic water.
The North Water is an interesting novel for me to sit down and write a review of because it’s not my usual sort of book, not by a long shot. For whatever reason, I tend to shy away from books about surviving in extreme conditions, long voyages by ship, or anything set in arctic environments, yet this novel has all three of those elements. Why in the world then, you may be asking yourself, did I decide to read The North Water by Ian McGuire? Why, the Man Booker long list, my dear Watson!
The Man Booker Prize is an award given out each year “to the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom.” The Prize has been around since 1969, with the winner receiving £50,000 as well as a £2,500 check for making the shortlist. The Man Booker long list for 2016, which consists of a total of thirteen novels, was released last Wednesday. Of those thirteen novels, six are by women and seven are by men; five of the authors are American, six are British, one is Canadian, and one is South African. Some of the long listed novels are by well-known authors, and some are incredibly obscure. All in all, the list looks incredibly interesting, and so I went ahead and put all the books on hold at my local library and am going to try to make it my goal to read all thirteen before the winner is announced on October 25th. The first of the thirteen to come in at my local library was The North Water, and so that is the book I decided to read first.
“‘I’d venture the Good Lord don’t spend much time up here in the North Water,’ he says with a smile. ‘It’s most probable he don’t like the chill.'”
The Basic Plot
The North Water is a historical fiction novel set in late 19th century England that primarily follows two men, Henry Drax and Patrick Sumner, who have both been hired to work upon a Yorkshire whaling ship known as the Volunteer. What seems like a fairly ordinary expedition to the Arctic Circle soon becomes extremely ominous as Sumner discovers that the Volunteer‘s captain’s last ship, the Percival, was shipwrecked and most of the crew died. This proves to be only the beginning of the Volunteer’s problem, however, as the ship and its crew are faced with murder, rape, starvation, and blistering cold temperatures.
Yin and Yang
As I mentioned before, The North Water primarily centers around two main characters: Henry Drax, a rough, brutal sort of man who is hired as a harpooner, and Patrick Sumner, a former surgeon with the British army who joins the crew of the Volunteer as a medic. Drax and Sumner are a sort of yin and yang in this novel, with Drax being the darkness and Sumner being the light. Both men are opposites, yet both are dependent on each other in the context of the story for the novel to work as a cohesive whole.
Readers enter The North Water not knowing much about either man. In fact, McGuire never really gives readers a full background on any of the characters in this novel (we learn a little bit about Sumner’s history in the army, but not enough to form a full picture of his character). Rather, McGuire thrusts readers into the story as if they were just another crew member on the Volunteer; any impression we form of the characters is based on their actions throughout the novel, not any sort of back story. It is easy to gather, for example, that Henry Drax is an evil, evil man, and this is blatantly demonstrated in the very first lines of the novel. Sumner’s actions, however, are a bit more ambiguous, and readers spend most of the novel waiting to see if he will turn out to be clearly good or clearly evil.
I find Henry Drax problematic in this novel as I don’t really understand him as a character. He’s vile, of course: this is a point that is driven home to readers again and again throughout the course of the novel. He lies, he murders, he rapes and he steals, but why? As I mentioned above, McGuire gives readers very little insight into the back story of his characters, which I’m sure is deliberate and may be a very clever plot device, however I just found that it prevented me from fully understanding the motivations of his characters. If there had been just a little bit of history on Drax, a little morsel of information hinting to readers why he is so disturbed, then I think I could have appreciated this novel more.
I found that even with Sumner, the character with the most well-developed history in this novel, I couldn’t really relate to his character. Without wishing to give anything way, readers learn that Sumner is an ex-army surgeon who served out in India and, through a shady series of events, was discharged from the military and now suffers from a serious opium addiction. Other than that, however, the character of Sumner is a virtual unknown; he even acknowledges himself numerous times throughout the novel that he is “nothing”:
“Perhaps he is free, he thinks…Perhaps that is the best way to understand his present state…The worst has happened – hasn’t it? – yet he is still intact, still warm, still breathing. He is nothing now, admittedly (a surgeon on a Yorkshire whaling ship – what kind of reward is that for his long labors?), but to be nothing is also, looked at from a different angle, to be anything at all.”
I think that this unknown aura that surrounds Drax and Sumner is intentional and that readers aren’t supposed to fully understand these two men. I can appreciate this as a conscious literary decision, however I personally would have preferred a bit more background.
The Good Bits
Don’t let my comments thus far dissuade you, however, because I really thoroughly enjoyed this novel. What The North Water lacks in character development, it certainly makes up for in readability. I’ve had quite a hectic schedule lately, so it does take me a little while to get through books, however I read The North Water in a matter of days. Why? It’s virtually impossible to put down.
Now, I will warn you, if you have any intention of reading The North Water, that it is an incredibly gruesome piece of fiction. McGuire is a master of realistic writing, which means that in the murder scenes (both of people and animals), readers really feel like they are there. Every sight, every smell, every touch and sound and taste is brought to life. This demonstrates McGuire’s immense capacities as a writer, but it also proves a bit of a problem for those with queasy stomachs. If you don’t mind a bit of blood and bile every now and again, however, then give The North Water a try, because the plot is so intense, so disturbing and yet so gripping, that you won’t want to put it down until you’ve turned the very last page.
And the writing! McGuire certainly has a way with words. His prose is not only extremely evocative but also immensely well-written and compulsively readable. The best way I can demonstrate this is just to include a quote, so take a glance over the following passage to see what I mean:
“The night sky is crammed with stars – the grand zodiacal sprawl and in between the densely speckled glow of unnameable others. The starry sky above me and the moral law within. He remembers, as he walks, the dissection hall in Belfast, watching that foul old blasphemer Slattery slice happily into a cadaver…He recalls the jars of sectioned brains, floating helplessly, pointlessly, like pickled cauliflowers, their spongy hemispheres emptied entirely of thought or desire. The redundancy of flesh, he thinks, the helplessness of meat, how can we conjure spirit from a bone? Yet this street looks lovely despite all that: the way the dampened bricks glow reddish in the moonlight, the echoing clack of leather boot heels on stone, the curve and stretch of broadcloth across a man’s back, of flannel across a women’s hips…After opium, this is what he likes best: these smells, sounds, and visions, the crush and clamor of their temporary beauty. Everywhere a sudden alertness that the ordinary world lacks, a sudden thrust and vigor.”
Overall, I did have mixed feelings about this novel. On one hand I really enjoyed it, as it was extremely well-written and I couldn’t put it down. On the other hand, however, I did have a few problems with The North Water: for one, it was incredibly, incredibly gruesome, and I thought there were some issues with the character development of Drax and Sumner. I am glad, however, that I took a step outside of my usual reading comfort zone and gave this novel a try, and based on literary craft and readability I think this stands a good shot at making the Man Booker Prize short list.
In other reviews I’ve been reading, I have frequently heard both The North Water and McGuire’s prose likened to Moby Dick, Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Conrad, and the film The Revenant, so if you’re a fan of those things perhaps you should give this novel a try (I can’t personally vouch for any of those comparisons as I’ve never read or seen the works in question – like I said, not my usual sort of read). If you’re looking for other thoughts on The North Water, I really like this review that author Colm Toibin wrote for the The New York Times, as well as this review from the blog Pages and Plays.
If you plan on reading The North Water or any of the other Man Booker long listed novels, please do let me know down in the comments and we can have a chat! 🙂