Monday, 12 September 2016

Book Review - The North Water by Ian McGuire

The North Water : a novel by Ian McGuire

New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2016.    ISBN 9781627795944

How could I resist this book? With a blurb stating that "The North Water is a whaling novel in the same way that Blood Meridian is a western..." and with my two favorite books being Blood Meridian and Moby Dick, I was hooked before I even read a word. Of course one should be wary of blurbs, and this book is not in the same league as either of those two classics, but is a good read nonetheless.

The story centres around the character of Sumner, a surgeon cashiered from the Indian army after a failed theft of treasure. He signs on with a whaler, The Volunteer, to go North to hunt the Right Whale. We are also introduced to Henry Drax, a harpooner and sociopathic murderer. 

Unbeknownst to both Sumner and Drax The Volunteer is on its last voyage, as the owner and Captain are in league to sink the ship for the insurance money. The plan is to make it seem like the ship is crushed by ice, while another ship lies nearby to rescue the crew.

Before the ship sinks however, Drax is revealed as the murderer of one of the cabin boys: murdered after Sumner has discovered that the boy had been buggered by one of the crew (Drax). By this stage of the book we know that Drax is motivated by an incohate evil force, and that Sumner is an opium addict.

The ship is sunk as planned, but in the storm that is used to cover the scuttling, the rescue ship also sinks. The remaining crew are stranded on the ice. When two Eskimo come upon the crew and agree to catch some seals for food, Drax sees his chance. Aware that the ship was deliberately sunk, he uses this knowledge to barter with the First Mate to give him a file to free himself from his manacles and flee with the Eskimo. Once free, he kills both Eskimo and the First Mate and escapes on the Eskimo's sled.

Sumner, in hunting a bear for food, is lost in a blizzard and is rescued by other Eskimo and taken to a mission station, from where he finds himself back in Hull and face-to-face with Baxter, the ship's owner. Drax has also made it back to civilization, and Baxter tries to arrange for a mutually fatal encounter between the two. However Sumner kills Drax without being killed himself, confronts Baxter and takes all his money. The last chapters see Sumner having successfully escaped with the loot, and reliving memories of his adventure.

This book is certainly a page-turning read and full of action, some of it gruesome in the extreme. It seems to me that the author has tried to create a type of seafaring Blood Meridian, but unfortunately lacks the talent or insight to pull it off. The language in the book is half-heartedly old fashioned, the descriptive passages lurch between the self-consciously overblown and perfunctory, and the evilness of Drax is too readily seen. The interpolation of a spiritual aspect to the novel via the Swedenborgian crew member Otto and the priest at the mission seem to this reader to be something that the author felt he must include to give his book some intellectual heft, but the shallowness of the exposition of these sections of the book actually detract from that intention.

When it came to the plotting of the novel, I was unsure if the moments when the story was telegraphed were meant to be that way or not, which occasionally detracted from the suspense that - for most of the time - was successfully built through the book.

So, while The North Water is not the next Moby Dick or Blood Meridian, and is not a deep intellectual novel, it is a good historical thriller. On that basis I would recommend this book to while away a stormy evening.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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