A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice A 19th-century whaling ship sets sail for the Arctic with a killer aboard in this dark, sharp, and highly original tale that grips like a thriller. 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 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? With savage, unstoppable momentum and the blackest wit, Ian McGuire's The North Water weaves a superlative story of humanity under the most extreme conditions.
"The North Water...is a great white shark of a book - swift, terrifying, relentless and unstoppable." (The New York Times) "Riveting and darkly brilliant.... 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." (The New York Times Book Review) "[An] audacious work of historical suspense fiction.... It's the poetic precision of McGuire's harsh vision of the past that makes his novel such a standout...absolutely transporting." (NPR's Fresh Air)
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The story was very engaging, almost cinematic. (It would make a good movie.) As for the narration, John Keating has a flair for accents. He also, unfortunately, has a flair for the dramatic. I found that his dramatic, exaggerated tone when reading the narrative, non-dialogue portions of the novel were a bit too much and distracted from the simple pleasure of the writing.
Short-Listed for the 2016 Man Booker, this is an unflinching novel that immediately invades your senses, a forewarning of what you are in for on this doomed whaling voyage into the Arctic. With a style that is undiluted and vivid, McGuire christens the Yorkshire whaler, the Volunteer, immediately in violence with the rape of a cabin boy (left for dead) on the eve of the ship's departure.
Behold Henry Drax: "Tonight he will kill, but the killing is not topmost in his mind. The thirst is much deeper than the rage. The rage is fast and sharp, but the thirst is lengthy. The rage always has an ending a blood-soaked finale, but the thirst is bottomless and without limit.” Stumbling out of a brothel just before dawn, he sniffs the "the complex air—turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning-piss stink of just-emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head, and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money's worth." McGuire has created possibly the most vile invertebrate in literature in Drax, a harpooner that represents the very depth of darkness possible in the soul of a man. Even his harpoon seems like a cruel appendage of this man, him experiencing the act of killing the whale almost on an orgasmic level... "'Give me one last groan,’ he says.’That’s it, my darling. One last shudder to help me find the true place. That’s it, my sweetheart. One more inch and then we’re done.'" Drax is more monster than man, and the vast unforgiving Arctic ocean, unreachable by the laws and virtues of man, is a comfortable theater for this kind of amoral beast and McGuire's fantastic tale of nature vs man/good vs evil.
Signing on as the ship's surgeon is former military man and avowed Atheist, Patrick Sumner. A principled Irish man that was dishonorably discharged from the army after fighting in the Indian Mutiny. Sumner is hiding his own demons, trying to escape from life through an addiction to laudanum (an opiate). Any captain would question a man of such caliber and education signing on for such a dubious and unconventional voyage; a journey of months elbow to elbow with the crew rough outcasts and degenerates. Captain Brownlee seems only delighted to have a man of Patrick's qualifications and distinction on board. It's soon revealed that the captain is preoccupied with more important chicanery. The suspect claim of a secret Arctic pool supporting flourishing pods of whales is only a ruse designed to hide a plan to scuttle The Volunteer for profit.
This is writing at its best...and man at his worst; a test of tolerance and endurance for any reader that loves writing that is exciting, vivid, creative and tense, but can't stand to read about the cruelties of man against man, or man against nature (other than some icebergs that deliver justice, here nature is relatively defenseless against man). McGuire plays with moral values and philosophies, pitting the nihilistic Drax against the regimented and socially conscious Sumner. If you are undecided about picking this book, possibly concerned about the cruelty of the whale hunting and creative demise of other creatures -- don't underestimate the graphic brutality. This is a tough story and a tough read that might not be for you. Listening along, I wanted to stay connected because of the excitement of a scene and the way it was so relevant to the state of the men as their values diminished the further away their journey took them from civility...it was a great metaphor terrifically written, BUT, the killing was painfully sharp and vicious. Ultimately, enduring through the whale killings and seal clubbing, I had to drop my earbuds during the polar bear event. I'll also prepare you for the language; a bombardment that even constantly endured, never seemed to become less offensive, to the point where I would have welcomed the relief of an occasional F-bomb. Realistically, I'd bet the language on these whaling vessels was even more salty.
A similar read, as far as the raw and gruesome events, AND quality of writing, might be *The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge* by Michael Punke, or *Butcher’s Crossing* by John Williams. For those that have read *Moby-Dick: or The Whale,* or Philbrick's *In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,* (the two novels about the 85 foot white leviathon), *The North Water* is similar in its intense description of the carnage. It's worth repeating the warning that McGuire doesn't spare the reader the gore or outrage.
(WARNING: don't read on if you are upset by graphic descriptions of the barbarity of whaling. The following excerpts are meant for those considering this novel, a small example (and the most benign) of what to expect. "Jones nods, takes a fresh blubber spade from the malemauk boat, waits for one of the sharks to come close enough, and then stabs at it, opening up a foot-long gash in its side. A loose-knit garland of entrails, pink, red, and purple, slurps immediately from the wound. The injured shark thrashes for a moment, then bends backwards and starts urgently gobbling its own insides."
[From *In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex;* Nathaniel Philbrick]: ”When the lance finally found its marks, the whale would begin to choke on its own blood, its spout transformed into a fifteen-to twenty-foot geyser of gore that prompted the mate to shout. ‘Chimney’s afire!’ As the blood rained down on them, the men took up the oars and backed furiously away, then paused to watch as the whale went into what was known as its flurry. Beating the water with its tail, snapping at the air with its jaws--even as it regurgitated large chunks of fish and squid--the creature began to swim in an ever tightening circle. Then, just as abruptly as the attack had begun with the first thrust of the harpoon it ended. The whale fell motionless and silent, black corpse floating fin-up in a slick of its own blood and vomit.” If you aren't outraged, sickened, or teary-eyed, this is your book. McGuire's monsters make Moby Dick look like Baby Beluga. Though undoubtedly worthy of the Man Booker, this choice takes some thoughtful consideration--if uncertain, I suggest passing.