It is 1859. British whalers still make the annual journey into the North Water, the Arctic, in search of the giant mammals, but the industry itself is dying, killed off mostly by the discovery of the uses of petroleum.
The whaler Volunteer prepares for its trip to the dangerous realm of ice. Among the last of the crew hired for the voyage is Patrick Sumner, a former army surgeon just back from serving in India where he was disgraced and cashiered out of the army.
With no resources to fall back on and no prospects on land, Sumner seeks the job as ship's surgeon. He hopes that the icy cold of the north will be an antidote to the memories of disgrace in the unbearable heat of India.
One could be forgiven here for seeing Sumner as a kind of Ishmael, Melville's survivor from Moby Dick. I am probably one of the only college freshmen ever to actually enjoy reading and analyzing that classic in my first year English class. In fact, it is one reason why I chose to read The North Water. I had seen its comparisons to Moby Dick and also to Conrad's Lord Jim. Very like Jim, Patrick Sumner hides a shameful secret from his past and hopes for redemption. Instead, he finds a maelstrom of bloody savagery populated by brutal, cruel men who seem barely human.
Least human of all is the monstrous Henry Drax, one of the harpooners. He brutalizes and kills without remorse, both animals and humans. He is a devil incarnate with no redeeming qualities. McGuire describes him and his murderous activities in great detail. He is at the center of the action on the ill-fated Volunteer.
At some point, I completely lost count of all the atrocities committed on this northern voyage. We have the wholesale relentless slaughter of whales and seals and bears. We have men being bludgeoned by bricks and whalebones, producing "a fine spray of blood," a recurring phrase in this book. Two Eskimo hunters are stabbed to death as they sleep. An oarsman's arm is ripped off by a polar bear, creating another spray of blood. But the first inkling that Sumner and his shipmates have of the evil among them on the ship is the brutal sodomizing and subsequent murder of a young cabin boy.
Drax points the finger for the murder to the ship's carpenter, but Sumner, on examining the body and examining the carpenter is convinced that Drax is lying and eventually convinces the captain of the clues which make it impossible for the carpenter to be the killer. Drax is finally unmasked as the killer himself by a suppurating wound on his arm that is found to contain a human tooth. A tooth pulled loose from the cabin boy as he was fighting for his life.
Drax is put in chains, but the reader suspects that those chains will not be able to hold him.
As the Volunteer reaches its destination among the icebergs, we already know that this is an ill-starred journey and we are aware that there is an insurance scam afoot. In league with the ship's owner, the captain has a plan to scuttle the ship and be rescued by another ship that is in the area, thereby collecting a bountiful insurance payoff. What could possibly go wrong?
I generally try to avoid such raw, bloody tales as this. It's the main reason I've never read Cormac McCarthy, but having now survived this one, perhaps I should give old Cormac a chance. Also, I try not to read books that have abuse of children and animals as a part of their story. This one has both. Still, I cannot deny that this is a powerfully told tale. McGuire seems to be a natural storyteller and he keeps his plot moving at a rapid pace. The world that he has imagined here is altogether believable, although it is not a pleasant world and he sees life as nasty, brutish, and short, with a constant fear of violent death. One can understand why the book made many lists as one of "the best of 2016."
My rating: 4 of 5 stars