“Behold the man.”
I knew I was in for a bold story when I read the opening sentence of Ian McGuire’s The North Water. I did not expect anything less from a novel about nineteenth century whalers from the Shetland Islands, what I did not expect, though, was a book that seemed to be made for me.
I love books about adventure in extremis and have read all the Arctic and Antarctic memoirs of exploration from Roald Amundsen to Cherry Apsley Garrad to Ernest Shackleton and so many, many more. I also like mysteries, and there is a bit of a mystery in this novel, though it is not a whodunnit but more of a willhegetawaywithit. For us, the reader, we know Drax is a killer from the first chapter. As Ian McGuire described it, he’s Moby Dick and our protagonist, Sumner is Surgeon Ahab.
Whaling is harsh and brutal. The weather is cold, the work is hard and danger is everywhere, from the great whales they hunt who could easily capsize their small boats, the stormy seas that can sink them and the threatening and unpredictable ice that can crush them. When you add a sociopathic murderer and a conspiracy, is there anyplace safe?
Sumner is the “hero” of our story, though that is the last word he would use to describe himself. He is a disgraced Army surgeon, court-martialed for leaving his post. He resents that he alone is punished, but is also haunted by guilt for the death of a young boy he promised to protect. He seeks comfort in laudanum and employment as a whaling ship’s doctor, about as low as a doctor can go. In this book, he is tested again and again, to the utmost edge of survival.
He’s employed by Baxter, a wealthy whaling businessman with several ships. Brownlee is the captain of this particular vessel, an unlucky captain who has lost one ship in the ice already. It soon become clear that this is not a problem for Baxter, not a problem at all. Whaling is dying, insurance is good. Things can happen at sea. Cavendish is a volatile and amoral first mate, ambitious and avaricious and several lines short of a full string. Drax, like his name, is a harsh, brutal and violent co-conspirator with Cavendish in a side-plot to rob Sumner if a valuable ring he carries, even if they have to kill him.
With this cast of characters as well as several others, the course is set for the ice pack, the whales and destruction. It all happens so inexorably, naturally. The conspiracies fall apart thanks to murderous Drax, short-sighted Cavendish and soon it is a battle for survival Will anyone make it out alive?
Well, I won’t tell you. I can only tell you that this is a stay up to 4 AM book. This is a toss on another blanket book. A what’s that noise book. So much happens, so quickly that it can take your breath away as they go from harpooning a whale to catching a murderer to surviving an icebound shipwreck.
I loved The North Water though how could I not? McGuire is an author who shows, instead of telling. Even though we are aware of the plotting and scheming that Sumner does not see, we are not inside the heads of every person. We learn through their conversations and actions, not their thoughts. He creates a strong sense of place that can chill you to the bones. Some of the descriptions of the sights and stenches of whaling have me forever grateful that my only experience is vicarious. He creates interesting characters who are more complex than they may seem at first. Even Drax, the sociopathic killer, is interesting not just in his implacability, but also in his intelligence and canniness about other people. I highly recommend The North Water, it is compelling, adventurous, and exciting.
I received a digital galley copy from the publisher via NetGalley.
- The North Water web site
- Ian McGuire on his inspiration for the novel
- Publisher Information on The North Water