Ian McGuire's 'The North Water' Is a Barnburner of a Tale

Life aboard a 19th century whaling ship with a band of madmen. It's certainly not for the faint of heart.

The North Water

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Length: 255 pages
Author: Ian McGuire
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-03

On the historical pyramid of terrifying and unpleasant jobs, the position of 19th century whaler would certainly be at or near the top. The duties required, both physical and mental, did not favor the weak-minded, the passive, or the faint of heart. Rather, it was a role best filled by brutes; those that had little in the way of sentimentalism or sound moral judgment tended to best succeed.

Take for example, Henry Drax, the contemptuous antagonist of Ian McGuire’s thrillingly rendered novel, The North Water. All instinct and brute force, Drax, despite summoning many of mankind’s most evil tendencies, excels at the backbreaking grunt work required of long voyages at sea. He thinks little of what should be done, and instead simply reacts to impulse, regardless of its’ overarching consequence. His supervisors and co-workers recognize he generally contributes little of positive consequence to society, but can stomach the unceasing horrors that plague these endless journeys. After all, it takes a certain type of non-benevolent person who is willing to spend their days performing the gruesomely savage acts involved in killing whales, an act McGuire describes as such:

He leans in harder, presses, seeking out the vital organs. The lance slides in another foot. A moment later, with a final roar, the whale shoots out a plume of pure heart’s blood high into the air and then tilts over lifeless onto its’ side with its great fin raised like a flag of surrender. The men, empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish’s steaming, expectorated gore, stand up in their flimsy boots and cheer their triumph.

It’s a hard day’s work, indeed, and definitely far from a pleasant one. In fact, as the novel makes tragically clear, more often than not, the actual whaling could be the safest part of the endeavor.

Despite these frightening accounts of life on the high seas, McGuire’s novel is at its’ essence a thriller and a war of wills between two headstrong characters. With nods of appreciation towards Jack London, Herman Melville, and Cormac McCarthy, the sheer and unpredictable forces of nature serve as a backdrop to two opposing forces of human morality and decision. Conflict and danger appear on every page, as man fights nature and each other with equally intense flourish.

At one end is Drax, a monster who disregards the law with little thought or remark: “the law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer.” Drax is most definitely not the kind of man who prefers things lawful and orderly. Instead, he traffics in a multitude of horrors: child rape and murder, drunken physical aggression, and mental tormenting are at the forefront of a list that also includes his appetite for prostitutes, hard liquor, and bullying. His repellent actions, best to be ignored by the cowing crewmen, is directly challenged by Partick Sumner, the ship’s beleaguered surgeon, whose past involvement in the bloody Siege of Delhi, makes him well-equipped mentally to take on Drax’s wild acts of mayhem.

Owing to some less than favorable past circumstances and some suspect moral judgment of his own, Sumner is far from an angelic figure himself. He has been hired on to the unpleasant task of ship surgeon where he is expected to care for the crew:

They come to him with wounds and bruises, headaches, ulcers, hemorrhoids, stomachaches, and swollen testicles. He gives them poultices and plasters, ointments and balms: Epson saults, calamine, ipecac. If nothing else works, he bleeds or blisters them, he induces painful vomiting, explosive diarrhea. They are grateful for these attentions, these signs of care, even when he is causing them discomfort or worse.

While he takes this role on with aplomb, Sumner also suffers much behind the scenes by lamenting away his dire situation with large quantities of opiates and laudanum. His senses rise though, when confronted with Drax’s actions and the book’s pages sparkle with intensity and anticipation as the pieces are moved into place that will lead to an ultimate confrontation. For all his imperfections, McGuire clearly establishes Sumner as the novel’s primary protagonist. He’s the one that stands up for what is right, and though he may be willing and even at times eager, to bend the laws of society, he cannot abide by a world that fails to punish men like Drax.

Along the way, all sorts of calamity and ill-repute sets in. Whore-mongering and drunken brawls pepper any short island stops. Bad weather and high seas wreck the equilibriums of those onboard. Bears and other forms of wildlife and forces of physical nature threaten safe passage, while infighting and disease also hold some captive. The ship’s hunting journey in itself is a complete sham, an elaborate ruse designed by the wealthy benefactors to commit an act of insurance fraud. For all their own troubles, the men at sea are simply pawns in someone else’s scheme.

Inevitably, McGuire steers the story towards a climax between Drax and Sumner. Leading to the point, though, he rarely pauses for breath, pummeling readers with savage violence, maddening character decisions, and stomach-churning accounts of medical procedures at their most primitive. The book, though not for the squeamish, possess an engaging narrative that’s less concerned with providing a historical context and more interested in displaying striking realism.

Full of unrelenting vigor, the characters (both good and bad) are presented for who they truly are. Save for a decidedly out-of-place philosophical crew member and a kind-hearted missionary priest, both of whom have a profound influence on Sumner, the novel’s cast of characters are presented in a fairly one-dimensional light. They’re out for their own interests and usually make no bones about their intentions.

This method, at times, can make for clichéd and archetypal writing with little room for nuance or degree. Especially within a historical setting, writers often have a tendency to bog down prose with voluminous period details and facts. Here, McGuire resists that urge and envelops everything with an air of suspense and intrigue. It’s a barnburner of a tale that stays focused on the action rather than meandering down slow and distracting paths.

With his nose for realistic detail and a barrage of gruesomely rendered images, McGuire manages to offer much about what life was like aboard these vessels. Enough, in fact, to know that whaler definitively belongs on that aforementioned pyramid of unwanted jobs.


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