APRIL 7, 2016
IAN MCGUIRE’S novel The North Water follows Sumner, an opium-addicted physician who signs on to the crew of the whale ship Volunteer in a bid to rebuild his life. After a dishonorable discharge from the British army, he wants nothing more than to disappear into the fog of the North Atlantic, to become nameless, pastless, and nondescript.
After scuttling their own vessel in a botched insurance fraud attempt, Sumner and the rest of the crew find themselves stranded on a barren Canadian shore above the Arctic Circle. Too far from Anglo settlements and too close to winter, the men decide to take their chances, batten down, and wait for the ice to thaw.
At first blush, the cover art and jacket copy’s description of a 19th-century whaling adventure might intimidate would-be readers with the prospect of another Moby-Dick. After Herman Melville’s copious details, what could possibly be said about whaling that does not traverse his well-charted waters? But whaling is mostly incidental in The North Water, and even when it is treated, McGuire’s bawdy crew from Yorkshire and the Shetland Islands is more than an ocean away from Nantucket’s quiet Quakerism, offering a shocking contrast.
Ishmael goes to sea to avoid “methodically knocking people’s hats off,” but The North Water’s Henry Drax has no such compunctions to self-control. He is a harpooner so insidious and malevolent that he manages to cram his last 24 hours on land with as much lechery and violence as his body can withstand. He steals, assaults, and murders, capping off his marauding dissipations by raping a child, all within the first chapter. Of Drax, McGuire says, “He grasps on to the world like a dog biting into bone — nothing is obscure to him, nothing is separate from his fierce and sullen appetites.”
McGuire is unencumbered by Victorian-era expectations of propriety in either his characters’ language or actions. The Volunteer’s crew swears and farts, fights and shits. They are vulgar in every conceivable way, violent, scheming, and irascible. Comments about the general worthlessness of Shetlander attitudes and industry elicits a raucous response from the first mate:
And thank fucking God for that […] A decent drink and a good wet slice of pussy is what a man requires before he commences the bloody work of whaling, and fortunately those are the only two products that Lerwick excels in.
In reflecting on the qualities of the first mate, the captain later remarks, “It’s a poor move to make him first mate. They all know him as a worthless cunt.” To which the ship’s owner replies, “Cavendish is a great turd and a whoremonger, it’s true, but he will do whatever he’s told to. And when you get to the North Water the very last thing you want is some bastard showing initiative.”
In other words, this is not your grandma’s seafaring novel. Even Jack London, who was pretty fearless in addressing physical violence, could not bring himself to explicitly recount such salty language. London prefers this kind of thing, from The Sea-Wolf, going about as far as his publishing world would allow:
Oaths rolled from his lips in a continuous stream. And they were not namby-pamby oaths, or mere expressions of indecency. Each word was a blasphemy, and there were many words. They crisped and crackled like electric sparks. I had never heard anything like it in my life, nor could I have conceived it possible.
Unscrupulous whaler language permeates the woodwork of McGuire’s novel, especially the epithets and dialogue. While The North Water is set in the middle of the 19th century, it is conveyed with a modern sensibility, and, arguably, greater historical accuracy due to the author’s dearth of self-censorship.
McGuire’s story is entranced by violence. When the crew members are not brutalizing themselves or others, they spread out into nature, clubbing seals, impaling polar bears, and stripping blubber from whales. Skinless corpses litter the ice and water everywhere they go. When they return to the ship, the deck is thick with flesh and gore. Even the men’s dreams are filled with shocking zoetropes of violence.
McGuire uses heightened, visceral language to convey these scenes, and this is where The North Water excels. His descriptions are pithy and merciless:
Sumner is standing two feet away from him, no more; he lifts his rifle to his shoulder and fires. The man’s face disappears instantly and is replaced by a shallow, bowl-like concavity filled with meat and gristle, and crazed and shattered fragments of teeth and tongue.
When the surgeon lances an infected organ during an operation,
[t]he roaring stench of excrement and decay instantly fills the cabin. […] The discharge is fibrinous, bloody, and thick as Cornish cream; it pulses out from the narrow opening like the last twitching apogee of a monstrous ejaculation.
These poetic descriptions, replete throughout, are where the reader is wooed and surprised. Though haltingly beautiful, they are not for the squeamish. McGuire sets a chisel to any sensitivity nestled in your brain and hammers at it incessantly for the full 270 pages. Is the violence gratuitous? My answer is a qualified no. The described violence is the most salient element of the book; without it, the story collapses into a tepid adventure novel.
The characters, while drawn in interesting detail, are not all that morally complex. There is little doubt, for instance, how ferocious Henry Drax will be and remain throughout the narrative. The protagonist, Sumner, having experienced one moral failing in life, will always bring himself around to doing the right thing. The result is a story with dramatic external tension, where the weight of survival compels the characters to make decisions, but not one in which a character’s inner life or most closely held beliefs are challenged or transformed in a meaningful way. This yields a plot that is at points disappointingly predictable and formulaic, especially in the last few chapters.
The North Water is a prizefight zealously described for radio. Every detail we hear about the men in the ring serves a singular purpose: to add texture to the crunching blows and viscosity to the spraying blood. Those listening for the pleasure of imagining expectorated gore will be satisfied; others will quickly decide to change the station. I found myself with my hand wavering near the dial, unsure which to choose.