Ian McGuire’s The North Water made so many best-of-2016 lists that I picked it up with little information beyond its setting: the arctic. Northern cold and claustrophobia can add to a story (especially when I’m safe under a blanket with an Irish coffee).
Behold the man: stinking, drunk, and brutal. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the rich hunting waters of the arctic circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money, and no better option than to sail as the ship’s medic on this violent, filthy, and ill-fated voyage.
In India, during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which a man can stoop. He had hoped to find temporary respite on the Volunteer, but rest proves impossible with Drax on board. The discovery of something evil in the hold rouses Sumner to action. And as the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic winter, the fateful question arises: who will survive until spring?
The first chapter left me baffled; it goes to extremes to convey that Henry Drax is a bad, bad man via details best left to Cormac McCarthy. (Cue Buzzfeed article: “15 Reasons Henry Drax Is the Literal Worst”.) McGuire casts whores with green teeth and “mucky” hands to cancel out any romantic feelings his readers may harbor towards the 1800s. Not many books begin with the rape of a child’s corpse, and this reeks of an author trying too hard to emphasize Drax’s complete lack of morals.
If I hadn’t paid full price for this book (a rare thing), I might have put it down. Who wants to read a whole book of that. But after I read the second chapter, I read straight through to the last page. McGuire, content with his opening groundwork, quickly moves Drax to the back burner so that he can develop other characters and outline an insurance scam. While Drax skulks around the story’s edge, no one except the reader connects him to the violent acts that plague the ship at sea. Once McGuire throws in an opium-addicted surgeon and a captain with a more-ice-equals-more-whales hunting philosophy, The North Water becomes the most compelling book I’ve read in ages.
One aspect that McGuire pulls off exceptionally well is the unimaginable cold in the far north. While his writing occasionally conjures cinematic images of a barren and beautiful landscape, the cold is an unrelenting drain on the men’s energy and resources. They struggle to stay warm and alert, to find food, and to navigate the ice in dropping temperatures. Then there’s the water:
For a long, bewildering moment, he is submerged and sightless. He thrashes himself upright, then flings one arm out and gains purchase on the ice’s edge. The ferocious drench of coldness has knocked all the breath from his body; he is gasping for air, and the blood is roaring in his ears. He grabs on with the other hand also and tries to heave himself out of the water, but can’t. The ice is too slippery, and his arms are too weak from the morning’s pulling. The water is up to his neck, and the snow is falling more heavily. He hears the ice around him creak and yawn as it shifts about in the low swell. If the floes move together he knows he will be crushed between them. (43)
The dialogue is terse and characters speak as they would in the moment; they don’t recap previously hashed-out plans for the reader’s benefit. Details of the main plot are left for the reader (and Sumner) to work through and both are given adequate cues. The pacing is drum-tight and the passage of time is convincing. Flashbacks to Sumner’s time in India are also well-positioned in the larger narrative; McGuire writes the heat as ably as he writes the cold, and the contrast between the two emphasizes both.
And the suspense! Seeing the plot fold together neatly was inexpressibly satisfying. If there was an award for Best Use of Dramatic Irony, I’d award it here. The reader often knows more than Sumner et al., but not in the maddening way that makes characters seem stupid or short-sighted (e.g., How could they not see that coming??). The reader is kept ahead to show the full weight and consequence of every bad decision, every selfish turn, and every piece of bad luck in that fickle ice field.
The North Water was long listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. I was a bit sorry to see His Bloody Project shortlisted over it. Sure, The North Water isn’t terribly deep for all its references to Moby Dick and The Heart of Darkness, but His Bloody Project makes Oliver Twist seem cheery. (More on this later.)
Overall: 4.8 out of 5. Don’t judge by the first chapter. It may be worse than the first ten minutes of a Law and Order: SVU episode, but wow does it come together. It comes together so marvelously that I even forgive some mild supernatural business (very, very mild—don’t let it put you off).
Translation: Read it. It’s so difficult to put down that I reread to the end after pulling the quote.