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The North Water: A Novel Hardcover – March 15, 2016
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“The North Water, Ian McGuire’s savage new novel about a 19th-century Arctic whaling expedition, is a great white shark of a book―swift, terrifying, relentless and unstoppable. [...] Mr. McGuire is such a natural storyteller―and recounts his tale here with such authority and verve―that 'The North Water' swiftly immerses the reader in a fully imagined world. [...] Mr. McGuire nimbly folds all these melodramatic developments into his story as it hurtles toward its conclusion. He has written an allusion-filled novel that still manages to feel original, a violent tale of struggle and survival in a cinematically beautiful landscape.”
―Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Riveting and darkly brilliant….The North Water feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.”
―Colm Toibin, The New York Times Book Review
“[An] audacious work of historical suspense fiction...It's the poetic precision of McGuire's harsh vision of the past that makes his novel such a standout...absolutely transporting.”
―Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air
“Mesmerizing . . . . Told in grisly language that calls to mind Cormac McCarthy,The North Water begs such ontological questions as: What profit it a man who saves his skin but misplaces his soul?”
―Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
“Bold and frightening, The North Water offers many satisfactions and little comfort. . . . Readers of Cormac McCarthy know that beautiful writing and bloody murder go together as well now as they did in Homer, and Ian McGuire proves it.”
―Jonathan Arac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Carries echoes of Melville and Lord Jim . . . engrossing . . . unsparing and utterly convincing.”
“A dark, brilliant yarn….An amazing journey.”
―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“McGuire delivers…moments of fine prose that recall Seamus Heaney's harsh music, as when an iceberg is described as 'an albinistic butte unmoored from the desert floor.’”
“Raw and compulsively readable . . . think The Revenant for the Arctic Circle.”
“It’s one of those ones that you want to wake up at 5.30 in the morning so you can read some more.”
―James Daunt, founder of Daunt Books and managing director of Waterstones
“The North Water is a conspiracy thriller stuffed into the skin of a blood-and-guts whaling yarn… The novel is a stunning achievement, by turns great fun and shocking, thrilling and provocative. . . . Behold: one of the finest books of the year.”
“McGuire delivers one bravura set-piece after another….The North Water has, in places, a Conrad–Melville undercurrent, but for the most part it is Dickens’s influence that is most keenly felt….This is a stunning novel, one that snares the reader from the outset and keeps the tightest grip until its bitter end.”
“McGuire’s prose is fresh and vivid and his novel as a whole is atmospheric and intellectually fecund. Its surface might be awash with blood; but beneath it flows a current of dark and transporting beauty.”
“As a storyteller, McGuire has a sure and unwavering touch, and he has engineered a superbly compelling suspense narrative….As a stylist, too, McGuire is never less than assured. He has produced a fine addition to the maritime canon, but one that revivifies it with a thoroughly modern acuity of style. He has established himself, too, as a writer of exceptional craft and confidence…”
“Compared with this savage tale of Arctic survival, Leonardo DiCaprio’s bear-wrestling ordeal in The Revenant looks like something out of A. A. Milne….McGuire expertly arranges all this mayhem, and the narrative is horrifically gripping. The North Water is smoothly readable despite the horrors it depicts, and that’s testament to the quality of McGuire’s prose. Such fine writing might have been lifted from the pages of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.”
―Independent on Sunday
“It is a vivid read, full of twists, turns, period detail and strong characters. The setting is original too, and the description of harpooning and flensing of a whale have been forever etched on my memory. This melodramatic blood and urine-stained tale is an enjoyable contrast to most literary fiction.”
“Uncompromising in its language, relentless in the unfolding of its blood-soaked narrative, this is not a novel for the squeamish, but it has exceptional power and energy.”
“Terrific, seamed with pitch black humour and possessed of a momentum that's kept up to the final, unexpected but resoundingly satisfying scene….inspired.”
“The strength of The North Water lies in its well-researched detail and persuasive descriptions of the cold, violence, cruelty, and the raw, bloody business of whale-killing.”
“Beware: this book is quite a ride. The violence is ghastly, the queasy sense of moral decay all-pervasive. McGuire makes Quentin Tarantino look like Jane Austen….the language has a harsh, surprising beauty that contrasts the spectacular setting with the greedy bankrupt men who force their way northward, armed with harpoons for slaughter.”
“I utterly believed in the world that McGuire has created….amazingly impressive set-pieces….[The violence] underlines the point that he is trying to make, a Dickensian point, which is that all privilege rests on squalor.”
―BBC Radio 4 Saturday Review
“Full of foul deeds in a savagely beautiful setting, The North Water is a gripping, pitch-black yarn.”
―Sydney Morning Herald
“This is a novel that takes us to the limits of flesh and blood. Utterly convincing and compelling, remorselessly vivid, and insidiously witty, The North Water is a startling achievement.”
―Martin Amis, New York Times bestselling author of Zone of Interest
“It's a fast-paced, gripping story set in a world of gruesome violence and perversity, where ‘why?’ is not a question and murder happens on a whim: but where a very faint ray of grace and hope lights up the landscape of salt and blood and ice. A tour de force of narrative tension and a masterful reconstruction of a lost world that seems to exist at the limits of the human imagination.”
―Hilary Mantel, New York Times bestselling author of Wolf Hall
“The North Water is the rare novel capable of making a past time and place palpable. Ian McGuire writes with a poet's attentiveness to detail, which infuses this dark and violent novel with an unsettling beauty.”
―Ron Rash, New York Times bestselling author of Serena and Above the Waterfall
“The North Water is a whaling novel in the same way that Blood Meridian is a western. I enjoyed the brashness and the economy of the writing, the sense of humanity, and the sly, black humor. The novel wasn't afraid to take chances and I was surprised several times. I was always entertained. . . . An exceedingly well-written historical adventure.”
―Shannon Burke, author of Into the Savage Country
“If one took Melville's dream journal and compiled the nightmares into one harrowing novel, it would be Ian McGuire's The North Water. The claustrophobic conflict between the flawed humanity of Patrick Sumner and the supernatural evil of Henry Drax examines the brutal depths of the human soul.”
―James Scott, author of The Kept
“Enthralling and brutal. A vivisection of hard men in a cold world, and a propulsive, suspenseful adventure into the darkness of mortal existence.”
―Dennis Mahoney, author of Bell Weather and Fellow Mortals
About the Author
Ian McGuire grew up near Hull, England, and studied at the University of Manchester and the University of Virginia in the United States. He is the cofounder and codirector of the University of Manchester's Centre for New Writing. He writes criticism and fiction, and his stories have been published in Chicago Review, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. The North Water is his second novel.
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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