Once in a while I come across a book that I simply cannot stop reading; that I walk around with while I cook or brush my teeth and keep reading late into the night. The North Water is such a book. An absolutely riveting read, an unputdownable book. The novel, set in 1859, tells the story of 27-year-old surgeon Patrick Sumner, who joins an ill-fated whaling expedition to the Artic. It’s an extraordinarily violent and brutal book, so if you mind graphic sex and violence, don’t even think about reading it. If you don’t, you’re in for a nail-biting thriller, which will keep you on your toes to the very last page.
Sumner is not exactly a saint, as we realise when details of his life as an army surgeon in India emerge, but compared to some of the crew on the whaling ship the Volunteer he seems pretty close to it. Most terrifying of all is Henry Drax, a harpooner, whose total lack of empathy and conscience, whose cold-bloodedness and impulsiveness has turned him into a killing machine.
‘Oh, I don’t intend to do much. I’m a doer not a thinker, me. I follow my inclination.’
‘You have no conscience then?’
‘One thing happens, then another comes after it. Why is the first thing more important than the second? Why is the second more important than the third? Tell me that?’
The Volunteer sets out on its journey from Hull via Shetland to Greenland, ostensibly to catch whales. As it turns out, that’s not the main purpose of the trip at all. I won’t disclose too much of what happens other than to say – a lot! And very little of it any good.
This book is a rollercoaster ride through drifting snow, hidden icebergs and freezing winter storms. Through dark, smelly taverns packed with brawly sailors and rowdy prostitutes. Through blood, shit and sweat. McGuire masterly recreates time and place, topping it off with the most mesmerising descriptions of Arctic landscapes and seas.
The North Water is a peek into the dark side of human nature where morals and conscience have crumbled, a sort of jungle on the seas where people fight for survival, threatened by each other as much as the elements; where a strict hierarchy seems to give carte blanche for abuse and violence. It is a battle between good and evil, where good loses most of the time.
In the middle of all this stands our dubious hero Sumner, who, confronted with his own past, needs to take a long hard look in the mirror and decide what kind of person he wants to be.
The North Water was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Why it didn’t make it to the short-list or even all the way to the top is a mystery to me.
The North Water is published by Scribner, 326 pages.