The North Water: McGuire’s dark new tale of whaling and wickedness

Ice floes and frostbite in The North Water made it the perfect novel to read during Sydney’s February heat wave, which saw the mercury hitting the high 30s for days at a stretch.

Set partly on a Yorkshire whaling vessel in the late 1850s, the novel also transported me from the irritating Trump mania and daily minutiae of our times to a past more bloody and violent than many I’ve chosen to read about before.

Hull’s whaling industry is on the wane and shipowners stand to lose much because they’ve invested heavily in their fleets. There are still whales in the north water and so the ship owners continue to send their boats out—but what soon becomes obvious is that the Volunteer will probably fail to meet its quota. What isn’t so obvious (at first) is the lengths some men will go to for money and to ensure they come out on top.

The boat is owned by Baxter and captained by Brownlee who has previously lost a ship and crew to the crush of an iceberg. The Volunteer crew includes men from Hull and from Lerwick in the Shetland Islands—men whose speech is sometimes rendered in dialect and often peppered with expletives. A lot of these men have shady pasts, which intensifies the sense of foreboding.

Ian McGuire’s work has been compared favourably with that of Cormac McCarthy but I’m not convinced it has McCarthy’s heft. The level of violence is certainly similar. There’s also another likeness I can confirm: Reading McCarthy’s Blood Meridian I longed for a woman character to appear who was central rather than tangential to the story. I felt this same longing as I read The North Water—even though in knowing the era and industry the novel explores I should have twigged much earlier that I wouldn’t get my wish.

Happily, McGuire’s fast-paced plot and pleasing evocation of the protagonist, Patrick Sumner, mostly compensated for this minor disappointment. And it is easy to see why the novel was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and appeared on so many eminent critics’ best reads of the year lists.

Sumner is the ship’s doctor/surgeon, and he is flawed enough and thoughtful enough to be intriguing. He’s also been badly wounded during the Siege of Delhi, and backed into the corner often enough to gain our sympathy.

He has no idea of the death trap he is walking into when he signs up to sail on the Volunteer with Captain Brownlee and a malicious cove called Henry Drax—a man without scruples.

Sumner’s doctoring is graphically described, and there are a number of instances where he must cut flesh and squeeze out pus—so if you’re squeamish beware.

On land it is ice, snow bears, starvation, boredom, sickness and travelling Esquimaux (Indigenous people) that the crew must contend with. While the sailors are competent enough in their ship on the water, on terra firma, in the vast and unforgiving Arctic, they’re all at sea.

As the likelihood of rescue diminishes many become despondent.

Sumner tracks a bear with the aim of shooting it for food. As the hours pass, his grip on reality grows slimmer and more hallucinatory. He sees a dead boy standing before him weeping and Sumner weeps as well with sympathy and shame, sadness and regret.

‘The boy reaches out for him, and Sumner sees, through the spy hole in his chest, another world in miniature: perfect, complete, impossible. He stares for a moment, captivated by the brilliance of its making, then turns away again. He grabs himself tightly, breathes in, and looks about. The child is gone: there is nothing in existence but the raging storm, and concealed somewhere inside it, the bear he must kill if he is to live.’

When Sumner’s found by the Esquimaux he’s believed to be a ‘wizard’ or Angakoq—and he decides there is no benefit to be gained from scuttling their fantasy. To tell you more would ruin the ending. I didn’t see it coming and feel this intensified its effect.

The North Water is a novel you could confidently give a reader who likes historical adventure stories. It is well written without being overly literary—although a few arcane words McGuire sprinkled throughout the text gave me pause. For instance: What’s a billy-cock hat? Or a bloody gallimaufry of bones? Or dead bodies like the ‘eerie gisants of a long-forgotten dynasty’?

It’s also a long time since I read the words baccy, trews, ptarmigans and tabards. It didn’t matter, because all these words seemed suited to their placement, and I definitely got the gist of what was being said.

McGuire writes slick dialogue and here’s a sample from an exchange between Sumner and a crewman called Otto—who is something of an armchair philosopher.

‘The sin is remembering,’ he [Sumner] offers. ‘That good is the absence of evil.’

‘Some men believe that, of course, but if it were true, then the world would be in chaos, and the world is not in chaos. Look around Sumner. The confusion and stupidity are ours. We misunderstand ourselves; we are very vain and very stupid. We build a great bonfire to warm ourselves and then complain that the flames are too hot and fierce, that we are blinded by smoke.’

‘Why kill a child though?’ Sumner asks. ‘What sense can be made of that?’

‘The most important questions are the ones we can’t hope to answer with words. Words are like toys: they amuse and educate us for a time, but when we come to manhood we should give them up.’

Sumner shakes his head.

‘The words are all we have,’ he says. ‘If we give them up, we are no better than beasts.’

I’ve tried several times to read Melville’s much-lauded classic Moby Dick but with no success. This crucial literary failing made me think it must have been the whaling, and not the writing, as such, that put me off. Now I’m not sure. Reading about how to catch and flense a whale in The North Water was less confronting than I’d imagined it might be. But perhaps it was the book’s blend of relentless human violence and animal slaughter that dulled the cruelty’s sting?

Whatever its small shortcomings, The North Water is a page-turner. I won’t claim it’s a modern Moby Dick that caters for the short attention spans of our age—but it is a rollicking good read. It’s prepped me well for my next attempt to read Moby. Too many fine authors sing Herman Melville’s praises for me not to try his magnum opus again.

The North Water
Ian McGuire
Simon & Schuster $19.99

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