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The North Water (2016)

by Ian McGuire

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9928014,884 (3.98)181
LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2016 A NEW YORK TIMES TOP TEN NOTABLE BOOK 2016 SHORTLISTED FOR THE LA TIMES BOOK PRIZE 2017 -- Winner of the RSL Encore Award 2017 -- A ship sets sail with a killer on board . . . 1859. A man joins a whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle. Having left the British Army with his reputation in tatters, Patrick Sumner has little option but to accept the position of ship's surgeon on this ill-fated voyage. But when, deep into the journey, a cabin boy is discovered brutally killed, Sumner finds himself forced to act. Soon he will face an evil even greater than he had encountered at the siege of Delhi, in the shape of Henry Drax: harpooner, murderer, monster . . .  'A tour de force' Hilary Mantel 'Riveting and darkly brilliant' Colm Tóibín… (more)
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“So you have no remorse for your actions? No guilt for what you’ve done?” Drax’s mouth lolls half open; he wrinkles up his nose and sniffs. “Did you think I was going to murder you down in the cabin?” he asks. “Split open your skull like I did Brownlee. Is that what you were thinking?” “What else were you intending?” “Oh, I don’t intend too 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.” “Because each action is separate and distinct; some are good and some are evil.” Drax sniffs again and scratches himself. “Them’s just words. If they hang me, they will hang me ’cause they can, and ’cause they wish to do it. They will be following their own inclination as I follow mine.” “You recognize no authority at all then, no right or wrong beyond yourself?” Drax shrugs and bares his upper teeth in something like a grin. “Men like you ask such questions to satisfy themselves,” he says. “To make them feel cleverer or cleaner than the rest. But they int.” “You truly believe we are all like you? How is that possible? Am I a murderer like you are? Is that what you accuse me of?” “I seen enough killing to suspect I int the only one to do it. I’m a man like any other, give or take.” Sumner shakes his head. “No,” he says. “That I won’t accept.” “You please yourself, as I please myself. You accept what suits you and you reject what don’t. The law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer.”
  runningbeardbooks | Sep 29, 2020 |
What a book! The North Water surely packs a powerful punch. In this mixture between historical fiction and thriller, Irishman Patrick Sumner joins the crew of a whaling ship in the year 1859. After having been involved in a mission gone wrong as in India, he has no other option but to become the crew's surgeon on a misconducted journey. It isn't long before things start to go terribly wrong...
Brutal, gruesome and with vivid, accurate descriptions of life on a 19th century whaling ship – there are none of the romanticisms of other maritime fiction books there (no, it's no Treasure Island). Life at that time on a ship was one of hard labour, many perils and poor hygienic conditions. Yet there is beauty in the narrative, the story is powerful and stays with you for a long time.You're not likely to forget the antagonist Henry Drax, cunning Cavendish, philosophic Otto, Patrick Sumner's account of the happenings during the siege of Delhi or his polar bear hunt any time soon, and you will not think of 19th century seafaring as romantic or desirable ever again.
You are going to need strong nerves and a strong stomach for this read, there are tons of trigger warnings: foul language, physical and sexual violence through and through. If you cannot abide that, you'll do better to stay away.
No, this book is not PC – simply because people weren't - at least not in Europe at that time. And yes, one might consider that as „problematic“, but I do believe strongly that stories should be told as they could have most likely happened. And in the 19th century, people on a dangerous mission such as whaling or as soldiers in the colonies were most likely as described: reckless, ruthless and deeply racist. There's no doubt about that.
I only subtract a half or quarter star because the ending felt a bit rushed. It all played out a bit too quickly and smoothly, but it's a satisfying ending nevertheless. A near perfect read. ( )
  Yuki_Onna | Sep 22, 2020 |

From the first page to the last, this tale of the life of mid-nineteenth-century British whalers is unremittingly brutal but it also feels authentic.

It starts in Hull in 1859. The port is shown as a sort of infection point where poverty and desperation meet with broken brutalised men with money in their pockets and nothing in their heads but a hunger for whiskey and sex.

We follow the monstrous Henry Drax, a harpooner about to ship out on a whaling ship for the season, as he takes a last opportunity to indulge his appetites, which in his case include murder and child rape. The desriptions of the filthy conditions, the wretched people and the merciless, joyless, compulsive violence are graphic, detailed and unemotional. This sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The ship Drax is shipping out to the Arctic Circle on has a new surgeon, Patrick Sumner, an Irishman recently cashiered from the army following an incident during the siege of Dehli. For him, whaling is an act of desperation, almost an admission of defeat and it seems that he intends to spend the voyage losing himself to laudanum as often as possible. Unfortunately for him, Drax is on board and the ship's captain has plans that involve a fraud that will put everyone at risk.

The historical detail is all there and no punches are pulled. Sealing and whaling are shown for the dangerous, brutal, dehumanising slaughter that they were. If Melville had written with this kind of accuracy, 'Moby Dick' would be off the curriculum.

A persistent theme of the book is that of men trying to buy some security or advancement for themselves by their actions either in India or the North Water as if the things they do there will be measured only by their outcomes, not by their morality. It treats anywhere outside of England as a sort of morality-free zone. If their actions make them rich then their propriety will go unquestioned. It produces a culture of avarice, distrust, and violence, underwritten by the complicity assent of an unassailable ruling class that takes a percentage and regards the squalid actions of their inferiors in the same spirit that they would watch a cockfight.

I found 'The North Water' to be a tough read. It was powerfully written and immersive but what I was being immersed in was unfailingly unpleasant. The people are mostly barbarians. The environment is lethal. The main character is slowly slipping into a dark pool of bad luck that will drown him. By the mid-way point in the book it seemed that everyone was likely to die and that, by the time it happened, it might well have been a relief to everyone involved.

Drax is monstrous but straightforward, an impulse-driven, conscience-free predator who never gives up. Sumner is broken by betrayal and self-abuse but still clings to survival. The rest of the crew are either barbarous or corrupt or both and the Arctic itself seems to want them dead.

As I read Sumners progress from one set of intolerable circumstances to another, at the back of my mind, I kept asking not just 'why read this?' but 'why write this?' The author is talented and knowledgable so what drew him to this tale of brutality and failure? By the end of the book, it seemed to me that he had written this because he sees it to be the true nature of the men who built the British Empire. The more I think about that, the more I agree with him.

I recommend the audiobook. John Keating's narration is close to perfect and kept me moving through the book. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
( )
1 vote MikeFinnFiction | Sep 18, 2020 |
Behold the man…

The opening line reads like a challenge, bordering on the blasphemous. Ecce Homo are, of course, the famous words which Pilate uses to present a battered Jesus to the bloodthirsty crowd in the Passion story. Here, the phrase introduces the reader to harpooner Henry Drax, a brutal, brutish individual who, we learn from the very first chapter, is a sexual predator, child abuser and cold-blooded murderer. He is, in other words, less man than beast. Author Ian McGuire describes him as follows on the book’s website page:

I started with the idea of him being like an animal -- in other words being driven by instinct and desire, living in the moment and having little or no interest in the past or future. He doesn't think or worry at all about the causes or consequences of his actions, unlike Sumner who can't shake off the past and is haunted by it. So that was how I began, and then built him up from there…

Other characters in the book have an even darker view of Drax – he is the devil incarnate, a personification of evil. Man, beast, fiend.

When we meet Drax, he is about to join the ‘Volunteer’, a Yorkshire whaling ship due to sail from Hull to the Arctic Circle which, in the 19th Century, is still a rich hunting area for whales and seals. Amongst the motley crew recruited by the expedition’s financier, there’s also one Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon who is going to sea for the first time, harbouring unsavoury secrets learnt during the Siege of Delhi. When a cabin boy is raped during the Arctic voyage, readers can immediately draw quite obvious conclusions regarding the perpetrator. The identity of the abuser is less clear to the crew and Sumner turns into a detective of sorts. In the meantime, the captain of the Volunteer is aware that there are other reasons for the expedition apart from collecting whale blubber, as the crew will eventually realise to their dismay. Against the backdrop of the Arctic landscape and amongst a diverse cast of supporting actors, a showdown between Drax and Sumner is inevitable.

In its contrast between a seasoned seagoer and a relatively young and naïve ship medic, The North Water reminded me of Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry, which I read and reviewed last year. But closer inspection shows that, despite superficial similarities, these two novels are very different. For a start, although Dark Water has (like Ian McGuire’s novel) been compared to Moby Dick, it is more ‘earthbound’ than The North Water, with much of its action happening on land. Both novels smell and taste of seasalt, but in the case of The North Water the narrative is centred on the expedition itself, rather than its aftermath. Another difference is that Dark Water is more of a Gothic novel, exploiting as it does many of the tropes of the genre. Ian McGuire’s The North Water, on the other hand, has dark overtones, and graphic, sometimes stomach-churning violence, but often feels closer to the classic ‘adventure novels’ of the 19th Century and often mimics their writing style. It is also as viscerally entertaining.

The settings of the novel – the busy, filthy port areas in Hull, the battle-riddled streets of Delhi, the claustrophobic cabins of the Volunteer or the sublime Arctic expanse – are described realistically in a way which involves all the senses. In this respect, it reminded me of another “historical thriller” I recently enjoyed: The Sheriff’s Catch by Maltese author James Vella-Bardon. Like most of the other scenes in The North Water, the whale and sea hunts are uncompromising and brutal but, despite the reservations we might have in these more ecologically-conscious times, McGuire still manages to put across the thrill of the hunt. Another of the novel’s strong points is its characterisation. Drax is evil incarnate, but he is strangely beguiling. And Sumner, whilst no saint, is likeable and I felt myself cheering him on in his battle of wits with the baddies. Great stuff.

For an illustrated version of the review, with links and a music playlist, have a look at

http://endsoftheword.blogspot.com/2019/05/north-water-by-ian-mcguire.html ( )
  JosephCamilleri | Sep 12, 2020 |
"I'd venture the Good Lord don't spend much time up here in the North Water," he says with a smile. "It's most probable he don't like the chill."

A deep, dark, unflinching, and unsparing account of men battling the elements, each other, and, for the most part, themselves. The character of Drax was the most non-cartoonishly evil character I'd encountered in a long time. But of course this only made me wonder: is that even possible? Isn't such a pure distillation of evil necessarily cartoonish? I wondered several times this as I read - whether every awful thing he did was meant merely to shock - but, in the end, the story carried me along its strong, swift currents that gathered power as I went. This is a brutal world, described brilliantly, but it's not for the faint of heart! ( )
  Jawin | Aug 9, 2020 |
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LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2016 A NEW YORK TIMES TOP TEN NOTABLE BOOK 2016 SHORTLISTED FOR THE LA TIMES BOOK PRIZE 2017 -- Winner of the RSL Encore Award 2017 -- A ship sets sail with a killer on board . . . 1859. A man joins a whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle. Having left the British Army with his reputation in tatters, Patrick Sumner has little option but to accept the position of ship's surgeon on this ill-fated voyage. But when, deep into the journey, a cabin boy is discovered brutally killed, Sumner finds himself forced to act. Soon he will face an evil even greater than he had encountered at the siege of Delhi, in the shape of Henry Drax: harpooner, murderer, monster . . .  'A tour de force' Hilary Mantel 'Riveting and darkly brilliant' Colm Tóibín

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amazon ca :Behold the man: stinking, drunk, and brutal. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the rich hunting waters of the arctic circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money, and no better option than to sail as the ship's medic on this violent, filthy, and ill-fated voyage.

In India, during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which man can stoop. He had hoped to find temporary respite on the Volunteer, but rest proves impossible with Drax on board. The discovery of something evil in the hold rouses Sumner to action. And as the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic winter, the fateful question arises: who will survive until spring?

With savage, unstoppable momentum and the blackest wit, Ian McGuire's The North Water weaves a superlative story of humanity under the most extreme conditions.
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