The North Water|
Henry Holt and Co., 2016, HC, 272 pp, $27.00
In a complete 180 from last month's Ocean of Insight, The North Water, by Ian McGuire is a distressingly dark and brutal novel. It is fast moving tale of murder, a merciless revelation of the whaling industry, greed and evil.
The flawed hero, Patrick Sumner, has shameful secrets. As a surgeon with the British Army in India he and some other medics attempt a theft. When it goes horribly wrong, with a large amount of deaths including a boy that had saved Sumner's life, he becomes addicted to opium. After being dismissed from the army and with no prospects, he signs on to the whaling ship Volunteer. He thinks of it as a sort of holiday "God knows that is what he needs after the madness of India: the filthy heat, the barbarity, the stench. Whatever Greenland whaling is like, he thinks, it will surely not be anything like that."
McGuire is relentless in his frank descriptions. They are bloody and gruesome, from bludgeoning seals, killing a polar bear mother in front of its cub, and capturing the cub; harpooning the whales, rape, and one man's arm being ripped from his body. It is the frankness of the telling however that makes it tolerable to read. Never is it gratuitous, or flagrant, it is just the piteous life and circumstances of these men.
Henry Drax is evil. Sumner and Drax become enemies after the rape and murder of a cabin boy. As the ships surgeon, when the boy comes to Sumner for a belly ache, Sumner discovers the abuse. Though the terrified boy is willing to ignore and avoid, Sumner feels a moral obligation to discover the abuser. Sumner, although often thwarted holds tight to this morality. He is the antithesis to Drax, and this is a continuous struggle in the novel. We are invited into Henry Drax's world in the first chapter. He is a primal predator with only his next pleasure as any incentive. "Drax goes swiftly through the motions: one action following the next, passionless and precise, machinelike but not mechanical. He grasps on to the world like a dog biting into bone- nothing is obscure to him, nothing is separate from his fierce and sullen appetite." The mystery of a murdered boy on a whaling vessel brings suspicion and confusion to the men.
Behind the scenes of all this drama, is Captain Brownlee who seems to be in on an insurance scam with the ship's owner, Baxter. The whaling business is on a decline, and Brownlee's last ship was lost with 18 men dead.
With the allusions of good and evil McGuire has tapped into many literary references. Some reviews have referred to Melville's Moby Dick, as well as Conrad's Heart of Darkness. This is a remarkable and deeply layered novel in its own right and one to keep on your bookshelf to revisit over again.