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The North Water: A Novel Kindle Edition
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McGuire paints a vivid and bleak picture aboard the Volunteer. Just as an arboretum and botanical garden produce things of beauty, the area of London in which some of the whalers that board the Volunteer lurk before shipping out and the Volunteer itself rapidly becomes a petri dish that facilitates the growth of sordidness, evil, murder, and worse—all magnified by the true and villainous purpose of the voyage of the ship kept secret from most of the crew—all of whom fall victim to a scheme they know nothing about as well as the perfidy of some of those aboard ship.
McGuire takes a realistic approach to his entire novel and it is carefully crafted throughout, containing the finest of language choices. Everything about The North Water: the settings, the times, the action, the characters and dialogue, and the many plot twists all jump from the page and pull the reader into the world of a whaling ship. The North Water, however, is no mere sea adventure.
With the decline in profits for those working in the whaling industry comes a decline in character for those still willing to risk their lives on the open seas. McGuire wastes no time in painting a stark portrait of many of his characters in Dark Water—men, for the most part, who are not heroic figures of courage and stamina, but scoundrels with notorious pasts and equally abhorrent presents who make little effort to hide their true nature. It is McGuire’s character development: who they are, what they are, and what they do that is the most gripping aspect of the novel. One expects men engaged in such laborious work that takes them far from home for long stretches to be out of the ordinary, hardened, and insensitive to many aspects of life. “If you are seeking persons of gentleness and refinement, Sumner, the Greenland whaling trade is not the place to look for them,” cautions the captain of the Volunteer. The majority of the men aboard the Volunteer, however, are even worse.
Soiled reputations and secrets abound among the crew. Captain Brownlee, with thirty years of command under his belt, is “notable for his fearsome ill luck,” having been the commander of the Percival, a whaling ship that went down with loss of life, multiple injuries, and loss of cargo. The ship’s surgeon, Patrick Sumner, is on the run from his past after having served in India and having partaken in a most unethical and unfortunate incident. His refuge is not only to board the Volunteer accepting a position far below his skill level, but from the laudanum bottle. First Mate Cavendish is a “whoremonger” who lords his authority over the crew. The head harpooner, Henry Dax, carries with him even darker secrets. Each of these men play pivotal roles in the novel and as the ship heads further north into more and more dangerous waters filled with glistening ice, chunks of which become of greater size and magnitude, nature itself becomes an awesome, uncontrollable player as well.
Repugnant and amazing events begin to take place quickly after the Volunteer takes to the sea and event piles upon event in rapid succession that will hold the reader spellbound. McGuire’s storytelling is above reproach. By mid-novel, the crew “fear worse is yet to come, and they would rather reach home with empty pockets but still breathing than end up sunk forever below the Baffin ice.” Turning back is not an option, nor part of the plan, however.
Any novel dealing with whaling in the 1800s is bound to have allusions to Herman Melville’s immortal classic, Moby Dick (1851) and The North Water is no exception. The descriptions of men in small boats pursuing and killing giant behemoths in the open sea are white-knuckle reading material. Melville’s respect for both the animals and the men that hunt them are obvious as they are in McGuire’s work in spite of the insidious nature of some of his characters. Melville’s inclusion of the mystical and dreams also make its way into The North Water. The most obvious comparison between The North Water and Moby Dick will not go unnoticed by readers familiar with the American landmark novel.
The North Water contains credible and vivid scenes of violence, the horrors of trying to survive in a most hostile environment, and for some, a handful of stomach-turning moments when it comes to bodily functions and physical injuries and within keeping faith to the novel’s tone and authenticity.
In some ways the conclusion of The North Water is inevitable, but McGuire’s use of suspense and exceptional plotting of his story leaves readers with no certainty as to exactly what will happen until the final page is reached. Readers who appreciate good storytelling and literature, especially with a historical setting, will be hard pushed to find a finer, recent novel than The North Water to satisfy their reading needs.
by Ian McGuire
Rating: ***** (5 stars)
Book Length: 270 pages
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
All I knew about this book before I picked it up was that it had good reviews and it was suppose to be dark.
The book opens by introducing us to Henry Drax who is most likely a psychopath. He follows base instincts to know when to eat, sleep, have sex, get drunk, and to kill. Henry Drax represents everything that is vial about human nature. Yet, this is not really his story.
The novel follows Sumner, an army surgeon that was dishonorably discharged while serving in India. Unable to find work Sumner agrees to be a doctor on a whaling ship. To add to his misfortune Henry Drax is also employed on the ship.
The novel is dark but not graphic. Ian McGuire does a great job describing the characters and the world. He pays extra special attention to the olfaction sensory experience. I do not think I have ever pictured smell so vividly from reading a book. Yet, due to Sumner acting as narrator, the book portrays the potential cruelty of human nature without being so graphic that it was completely unreadable. Instead what is shown is a struggle to overcome base human nature to transform into a better human being.
As reviewed on The Book Recluse Review