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Brutal sailors, Arctic setting make 'North Water' a harrowing read

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: October 16, 2016
  • Published October 16, 2016

The North Water

By Ian McGuire; Henry Holt & Co.; 2016; 272 pages; $27

In the early pages of "The North Water," Ian McGuire's harrowing new novel set largely in the Arctic Ocean in 1859, Patrick Sumner, newly hired as ship surgeon on a British whaling vessel named the Volunteer, discusses what he'd witnessed in India. He'd been there for the Sepoy Rebellion.   

Speaking of John Nicholson, the martyred British hero of the conflict, Sumner says, "I saw him hang a man just for smiling at him, and the poor bugger wasn't even smiling."

The ship's captain, Arthur Brownlee, mirroring the British mindset of the time, is unfazed.

"Lines must be drawn, Sumner. Civilized standards must be maintained."

Sumner, an Irishman who'd been on hand for the Siege of Delhi, and who has come home with a leg damaged in the fighting and a secret that he's clinging to, believes he knows the depths of human depravity. When he signs on with the Volunteer, it is to seek solace in the Arctic waters and perhaps find the peace that's eluding him.

Civilized standards, however, will not be maintained as the Volunteer journeys north and a harpooner named Henry Drax begins to commit crimes of violation and murder. Sumner, hardly innocent himself, is soon witness to the full depths of human depravity.

British-born McGuire, whose only previous novel was a lighthearted tale of a college English department, has taken a full 180-degree turn with this story.  Relentlessly violent and darkly fatalistic, it is, for the most part, a superb work of historical fiction set in an inherently brutal world, where what men will do to animals is what they do to one another.

McGuire's descriptive skills are evident, as is his understanding of the time and place he seeks to recreate. When the crew of the Volunteer kills its first whale, the scene is vivid, horrifying, yet also celebratory.

"He leans in harder, presses, seeking out the vital organs. The lance slides in another foot. A moment later, with a final roar, the whale shoots out a plume of pure heart's blood into the air and then tilts over lifeless onto its side with its great fin raised like a flag of surrender. The men, empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish's steaming, expectorated gore, stand up in their flimsy boats and cheer in triumph."

Elsewhere in the book, humans are dispatched with similar flourish, although without the cheering.

The Volunteer is cursed by its captain from the start. Brownlee has already sunk one boat in the Arctic, resulting in numerous deaths. Owing to his reputation, the crew members on board are not the best men to be found. Worthy seamen aren't likely to ship out with him. Savvy crewmen quickly sense that Sumner is no more admirable than they are, and it is Drax, along with Cavendish, the first mate, who discover his secret.

Two different crimes of greed are planned for the vessel, one by its captain and the other by Drax and Cavendish. But it is Drax's insatiable appetite for perversion and violence that set off the events that lead to the crew's inevitable fate (it's the Arctic Ocean in the 19th century; any knowledgeable reader will know that, despite plans to the contrary, the crew won't get out before winter sets in).

The crew must face the evil of Drax, and the crime he commits is one that will shake even these men, accustomed as they are to casual violence and questionable sexual desires. Drax is a man unmoored from civilized standards, never considering his actions, regardless of how horrific they be, beyond what benefits he will gain. No possible punishment, not even his own death, concerns him. There is only the immediate gratification of his animal instincts.

"He has no fear of the future, no sense of its power or meaning," McGuire writes.  "Each new moment is merely a gate he walks through."

Similarities with Cormac McCarthy

With its historical setting, gratuitous bloodletting and exploration of the worst elements of human nature and behavior, this book calls to mind the early novels of Cormac McCarthy, although McGuire doesn't quite have McCarthy's gift for dialogue evoking a bygone era; indeed the banter between the crewmen, filled with a constant stream of profanity, sounds more like today's commercial fishermen than what one might expect from 19th-century whalers. The language, a bit short on colloquialisms of the period, sometimes seems too modern.

What McGuire does have, however — and it's something McCarthy too often lacks — is an ability to drive his storyline from start to finish in one solid arc. This book moves well and only in the end does it falter. After more than 200 pages plumbing the depths of human behavior and burrowing through the darkest corners of men's souls, McGuire seems unable to bring things to a close worthy of what has come before. The final resolution feels more like something from a best-selling thriller than a work of literary fiction. It doesn't ruin the book, but neither does it leave readers pondering questions raised earlier. Justice is served, and the story is over. How Sumner is altered by it all feels overlooked.

What comes before, however, is worthy enough. "I'd venture the Good Lord don't spend much time up here in the North Water," one character observes midway through the story. "It's most probable he don't like the chill."

The Good Lord, like civilized standards, won't be found in this story. What happens in their absence, however, most certainly will.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer and critic.

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