The North Water by Ian McGuire

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The North Water by Ian McGuire is the tale of a journey into the icy cold reaches of both the human heart and the frozen waters of the north. It is, undoubtedly, one of those few novels that end of it I cannot really say that I enjoyed the reading but still left moved by it.

The Volunteer is a whaling ship that sets off for the Arctic with a crew of perhaps the most hard and degrading men you will ever meet in one novel. Trapped with them is a surgeon hiding from the injustices of his past and a killer whose own reasoning is as sound to him as any reality around him.

“…Behold the man.
He shuffles out of Clappison’s courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air-turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning-piss stink of just emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head, and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money’s worth. At the end of Charterhouse Lane he turns north onto Wincolmlee, past the De La Pole Tavern, past the sperm candle manufactory and the oil seed mill. Above the warehouse roofs, he can see the swaying tops of main and mizzenmasts, hear the shouts of the stevedores and the thump of mallets from the cooperage nearby. His shoulder rubs against the smoothed red brick, a dog runs past, a cart piled high with rough cut timber. He breathes in again and runs his tongue along the haphazard ramparts of his teeth. He senses a fresh need, small but insistent, arising in him…”

Henry Drax is a harpooner. A hard man whose life at sea has given him a dark and cruel vision on life. Patrick Sumner is an ex-army surgeon whose experiances in war have changed him forever. More so is the injustice visited upon him for no better reason than he was born in a lower station than those around him. Together the two men are part of the crew of the Volunteer, a whaling ship that sets out toward the end of the season in hopes of one final haul. Its Captain pushes her deeper into the frozen Arctic, but in reality he has an agenda all his own. As they move forward the ship and crew find that they have a rapist on board. A child rapist at that, and soon after, a child murderer. Sumner does not accept the convenient findings of the Captain and soon believes that it is the harpooner Drax who is to blame for the murder and rape of the young cabin boy. But before the harpooner can be brought to justice, the Volunteer finds itself surrounded by the ice and trapped in the Arctic. Now Sumner must not only bring the murderer to justice but find a way to survive until Spring.

“…He looks down at the bear’s eviscerated corpse, its split and opened rib cage yawning like an empty tomb.
He pauses a moment, considers, then, as if stepping into a bath, he bends and lowers himself down into the striated crimson cavity. The severed bones close over him like teeth. He feels the stiffened muscle compress and spread beneath him. There is the clean wet smell of butchery, a faint but marvelous residue of animal warmth. He tucks his sea boots up into the hollowed out abdomen and pulls the dead flesh tight around him like an overcoat…”

Sumner must find a way to survive in this frozen wasteland. Not only to bring Drax to justice but to also to bring to light, that the Volunteer being caught in the North Water may not have been an accident after all.

This is both a vicious and savage book in its telling. The men are represented as one level above the wild, dark and foreboding, whose value of life is more in how that one man may help you survive than in its simple humanity. This, I believe, was done on purpose. The setting and plot will leave you unsettled. Truthfully, I was waiting on cannibalism to set in at any time. It would have fit with the rest of the tale quite easily.

This is not for the squeamish or this generation of readers whose social and political agendas override all common sense or sense of story. Not this one is the one they keep hidden under their jackets and share in the damp and dark alleyways like a stolen watch or cheap drug.

This one will strike you where you live, where you breathe, where you care. And then leave you without a sense of fulfillment. Because it is its own story and in truth, it doesn’t give a damn about you.

Its just that good.


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