Ian McGuire, “The North Water”

the-north-waterColm Toibin put it perfectly in The New York Times:

The North Water feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.”

It’s a brutal book. It’s violent, gritty and harsh. And it’s a big old chunk of pure storytelling.

Set in the late 1850’s, much of it on a whaling boat called the Volunteer, The North Water is one part adventure, one part crime story and all parts tale of brutality, survival and the limits of human endurance. McGuire writes with a present tense style that has the sensibility of a documentary.

This happened and that happened and so on. Now and now and now. Cinematic? Uh, yes.

At the core of the story are the ship’s surgeon, the drug-addicted Patrick Sumner, and the wickedly vile Henry Drax. The North Water starts in Hull and as the ship is preparing to venture off north toward the Arctic and from there it’s all downhill as the numbers of shipmates dwindle, as the ship busts apart (that cover illustration tells you all you need to know), as the survival begins, as the sense of bleakness and dread leaves a few tiny little human figures struggling against the vast white (where there isn’t blood) emptiness. If there’s a human bodily fluid or key internal organ that goes unmentioned, I’d like to know. It’s literally as if the inhabitants of this novel are turned inside-out.

Of course we have a hunch that not all will perish and McGuire adds a final coda back on dry land that deals with the moral fallout from a bigger crime that’s been underway all along, and partially forgotten as we have shivered and flinched and worried.

It’s a brilliant piece of writing. McGuire’s got a great eye for detail. The story flies. We don’t stop to learn about anything. McGuire leaves out all the parts that would Tom Clancy would not. We are simply immersed in a world that exists and asked to hang onto the gunwales, our knuckles whitening with each toss of the cold sea.

Finally, I have to point out that I listened to this on audio, narrated by John Keating. I firmly believe his reading enhanced the whole experience.

Keating has a bright, clean style. You can almost hear the smile in his voice, which contrasts so starkly with all the abject misery that voice is required to relay.

 

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