Ian McGuire’s The North Water has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I’ve had it on my TBR pile for a little while, and now that I’ve read it, I wish I had done so sooner.
It is 1859, and the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaling ship, is about to set sail for the hunting grounds of the Arctic sea. Patrick Sumner is an ex-army surgeon who has joined the crew as the medic for the voyage. Also aboard is harpooner Henry Drax – a drunk and savage brute of a man.
As the journey gets underway, it becomes clear that the purpose of the voyage is not quite the straightforward whaling mission that it has been made out to be, and what ensues is a thrilling tale of intrigue and action in the harshest of conditions.
I was gripped from the opening chapter of The North Water, which begins with an introduction to Henry Drax, and an invitation to:
Behold the man.
And what a man to behold. In Drax, McGuire has created a truly abhorrent character, and one who deserves to be added to lists containing the likes of Hannibal Lecter and Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden. Here is a man who does as he likes:
I’m a doer not a thinker, me. I follow my inclination.
Whilst to other characters his actions seem to be almost random acts of violence, for Drax it’s more of a craving to be satisfied, and a craving that he is more than happy to satisfy at any available opportunity.
Whilst Drax seems to be evil incarnate, Sumner is a more balanced and complex character. Essentially a good guy with a keen sense of justice (no matter what trouble his persistence to set wrongs right might land him in), he has a past that he hopes to keep to himself, and he’s created a story for why a surgeon such as himself has sought employment upon a whaling ship. I came to see Sumner as something of a tragic hero – a good man who is essentially flawed. At the outset, he is laughably naïve, and believes that he can spend much of his time aboard reading The Iliad. He is quickly disabused of this notion, however, as events take their course.
The North Water is graphic, both in terms of language and violence. Yet the detail is not sensationalist. Rather, it brings to life the experience of the whaling voyages of the time – the ragtag crew who assemble and disband with little camaraderie or affection between them, the dangers involved in such missions and the brutality of both the work and the conditions in which the crews were forced to operate. McGuire has clearly done his research for this novel, and uses this to bring the story to life through the little details and without resorting to ‘info dumping’ on the reader.
The North Water is easily one of my favourite reads of the year so far – I absolutely loved it. Bleak and unsettling, I was gripped from the very first page to the last, and I’d love to see this on the Booker shortlist when it’s announced in September.