While trying to describe The North Water to a colleague, the best analogy I could come up with was to imagine if Jack London had given up describing more wholesome Arctic adventures, and written a nasty story filled with brutal violence, rampant drug use, bloody deaths and the rape and murder of at least two young boys
It's strong stuff - not for the faint hearted - but it is superbly written by British author Ian McGuire. It's just his second novel, but I enjoyed it so much it made want to track down his first. McGuire grew up in the town of Hull, where some of the novel takes place.
Set in the 1860s - at the end of the British boom years for blubber and whale oil - The North Water tells the story of disgraced army doctor Patrick Sumner- recently returned from the siege of Dehli - who is in need of a little money to get him back on his feet and a place where he will not be found for a few months. With this in mind, he signs up as the ship's physician on The Volunteer, a whaling vessel soon heading north to the breeding grounds off the coast of Greenland.
The brutality and carnage he witnessed in India have not only left him with a damaged leg, but also emotional and psychological scaring as well. Plus, and he has grown addicted to the solace of laudanum - an early medicinal opiate. Sumner believes the voyage will pass in a fog of self-medication while treating a small crew for minor scrapes and ailments. In this, Sumner is totally wrong.
His hopes for a uneventful trip are largely ruined by savage polar bears, fraudulent insurance schemes, biting cold and the psychotic actions of Henry Drax - who besides being the ship's harpooner is also a violent drunkard, murderer and paedophile. To say that things do not go well is somewhat of an understatement.
This is a book that is not afraid to kill off major characters by a writer who seems to be enjoying himself immensely. It is not a long book, 325 pages or so, and it has been very well edited. Exciting and surprising events fill each chapter. It obviously takes many weeks of tedious sailing to get from the UK to Greenland in the 1860s, but McGuire only gives us the good bits. His writing style is taut, gripping and quite literary - which is somewhat of a feat in itself. You never fell as though you are reading an quick summer thriller. McGuire is the real deal and a natural storyteller.
If I had any complaints about this novel - and I don't really - it would be that you don't get much of feel for life aboard the ship amid the brutality, so fans of Patrick O'Brien should not expect copious maritime detail.
Also, on those passages where McGuire is being more descriptive, the occasional word above by personal vocabulary level would take me out of the scene as I noted it for future reference; fauteuil, flensing, stelliferous, krang, tantali, purlieus and tragacanth. But as I said, this is a minor point only - and his dialogue is excellent as well.
"Let me tell you something about myself," Cavendish says, leaning in a little and lowering his voice. "Unlike some perhaps, I don't come whaling for the fresh air or the fine sea views. I don't even come for the pleasing company of you and Otto here. I come whaling to get my money, and I will get my money any way I can. If your opinions came in gold with the Queen's head stamped upon 'em, I might pay them a little mind, but since they don't, you won't be too offended, I hope, if I take no f***ing notice of them at all."
By now, I expect there will be a small number of you who have perused this review and have not been turned off by my reports of violence and profanity, hardship and cruelty to animals, and will be thinking to themselves that The North Water sounds exactly the type of novel they would like. If you are one of these people, I can honestly say that you will not be disappointed.
The North Water is published by Scribner UK ($37.99)
Illustration by P.K. Stowers