The Reading Passport

Social media, political changes and financial unrest have been cultural standpoints so far in the ‘Teenies’. In a fast moving decade there has also been a move towards remembrances of things passed. In our final review for The Reading Passport we will look at a novel of whaling in the northern seas. This gripping story, though, is certainly not nostalgic!  Ian McGuire – The North Water (2016)

The North Water by Ian McGuire

The pages of this novel are metaphorically dripping with blood. Sailors skin polar bears and club seal cubs. A sea captain shoots a mutineer in the head and a surgeon operates on an abscessed stomach releasing a torrent of fetid pus. This is not a book for the faint-hearted! Nor is it a book for those sensitive to bad language. There is swearing on almost every page. It is a story of a doomed Nineteenth Century whaling voyage: a voyage into the heart of darkness. The whole cruel and bloody business of whaling is so well researched that the language gives the tale an formidable reality.

The story opens violently. Drax, a brutish harpooneer kills a Shetlander and rapes a boy. Its clear when he joins his ship, The Volunteer that there will be trouble ahead. The Volunteer, owned by Baxter and captained by Brownlee, employs Patrick Sumner, wounded in the siege of Delhi, as the ship’s surgeon. He claims he wants six months’ work before he comes into property in Ireland. Shadowy motives and histories thicken around the crew of the Volunteer. Already there are rumours of risk: Brownlee has previously captained the Percival, “crushed to matchwood by a berg” with the loss of 18 lives and not a sixpence made by any of the surviving crew. And yet Baxter has now given Brownlee the Volunteer. An unlucky ship attracts unlucky and desperate men. As the story develops the men not only kill wild beasts, but also each other in a morally dead universe isolated in the treacherous northern seas.

The North Water is a fast paced and gripping tale written in a smoothly readable style with sublime descriptions of the Arctic landscapes. If you can stomach the blood and brutality, and the bleak vision where lives mean nothing, then you will find this a novel a convincing and compelling achievement.

If you enjoy The North Water you might like to read McGuire’s novel “Incredible Bodies”, a sordid and hilarious tale of sleeping on the job, sexual confusion, and terrifying departmental secretaries.

Ian McGuire lectured in American Literature at the University of Manchester, where he now teaches creative writing.