The North Water by Ian Mcguire is a no-holds-barred historical novel set in the waning days of the whaling era, 1859, and takes the reader on a grueling but enthralling trip to the arctic and to the depths of the human heart. It’s a fast read because you can’t put it down. It’s a book that tests your nerves, because some really terrible things happen in it, but it’s also a book that brings a whole world to life before your eyes.
Patrick Sumner, the protagonist (and as close as we’re going to get to a hero in this book), is a surgeon, lately returned from the British Army, where he served in the Sepoy Uprising in India. In the midst of the horrors and atrocities of the Delhi campaign, he ended up betrayed and dishonorably discharged from the service. Desperate for a new life, he signs on with the Volunteer, a whaling ship whose captain is known to be unlucky (there are hints of something terrible having happened to his last ship, though we never find out exactly what the disaster was), and whose owner has already realized that whaling is on its way out and has figured out a better way to make money with his ship, by having an “accident” in the Arctic and collecting the insurance money. Sumner does not realize this at first (though he puts the pieces together by the end of the book), nor does he realize that among the crew on this voyage is a monster in human form, Henry Drax. Sumner hopes that his tenure on the ship will be peaceful and easy, that he will be able to treat the small injuries and illnesses of the crew and spend most of his time reading and floating away in opium dreams.
Of course that doesn’t happen, and when Sumner discovers that one of the cabin boys has been raped, he feels compelled to act, and when that same boy is found murdered, his body stuffed into a barrel aboard the ship, Sumner pits himself not only against the captain, who wants to set up an easy scapegoat for the heinous acts, but against Drax, who has no compunctions against killing anyone, even the captain. As the ship proceeds to its inevitable “accident”, and more and more things start to go wrong, the tension rises and you turn pages faster and faster, hoping against hope that somehow Sumner will survive and some kind of justice will be done.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted or for people who object to graphic violence or bad language. The phrase “swearing like a sailor” is very apt here, and between the f-bombs and the references to women and blacks, the language is true to its time but appalling to a modern reader. This is a whaling expedition, at least ostensibly, and the men on the ship are casually cruel hunters, killing seals, bears and whales and rendering them for use, all of which is described in vivid and memorable language.
However, if you’re willing to face some rough language and a lot of violence and cruelty, this is one incredible novel, a book you can’t put down. The characters come alive in all their contradictions and complexities, the plot keeps surprising you, and the historical and geographical detail is amazing. Pick up The North Water and take an unforgettable trip.