CultureWatch: Joan L. Cannon Reviews The North Water, "a brilliant book ... but ..."
THE NORTH WATER
By Ian McGuire
Published by Henry Holt & Co., 2016
Hardcover, 257 pp.
Fiction is an art that for many seems without a useful purpose. For others, it proves the ability of the mind to go where it has never been, even to places it can never go, thus broadening the life of the reader regardless of physical limitations. It is even able to take a reader to places she could not imagine.
Ian McGregor's story begins in a depressing place at a depressing time of day (night) in the company of depressing people. We visit the dirty, desperate lives of seamen who sail on any ship that will give them a berth, do nearly any task, however dangerous or brutalizing, if they can be paid for it. In a few pages, we meet men who appear to have absolutely no redeeming characteristics as they await the sailing of a whaler bound for Greenland.
It is evident early on that there is some ulterior motive in this particular whale hunt. It takes place as the price of whale oil is falling rapidly in the face of cheaper coal oil, and too late in the season to warrant a hope of a good catch. The owner of the vessel is clearly interested in nothing but profit without regard for the lives of the men aboard. In his pay is a vicious mate to manage what we understand almost at once is an ill-fated voyage.
The center of the tale is a young officer who has survived the Siege of Khartoum. He signs on as the ship's surgeon. The circumstances of his departure from the Army are murky, He is addicted to laudanum*. His background and motivations reveal themselves gradually, but early in the story we can see his distaste for the unprincipled and cruel men who seem to be in charge.
After increasingly distressing events of apparently gratuitous cruelty, eventually the ship becomes trapped in ice pack as cold closes in. Ultimately the crew has to abandon it as it breaks up. A few native people save some of the sailors, but most end up freezing and starving in rapidly advancing winter.
One of the men aboard is a veritable personification of almost anything evil one can think of. The climax of the story is, naturally, a showdown between him and the young surgeon.
It took a modicum of nerve to write a novel set mostly aboard a whaling ship in the eighteenth century, but though this story may owe something to Melville, it holds its own. Ultimately, it is a tale of fraud, amorality, psychopathic evil, and the struggle of one man just to survive for another day, he hopes, with some of his moral being still intact.
Descriptions are nothing short of brilliant, so vivid and evocative are they. The plot moves inexorably and satisfactorily. The writing suggests the author either has some experiences similar to those of the characters, or has accomplished an amazingly detailed kind of research. In short, this is a brilliant book.
Yes, for me there is a "but." The horrors are of many kinds, and they are unrelieved. Melodrama is not altogether repellent in itself, perhaps. Many a famous author has chosen to write about the evil in the hearts of men, but few as explicitly as this. I found myself wishing to get to the end just so I could get away from all the awful things happening in the awful places where they were taking place and the relentless detail of such horrific suffering.
For readers who like adventure and macho behavior, subdued heroism with a dollop of basic cynicism, this will be a memorable experience. For others who prefer some entertainment with a slice of terrible life, The North Water will be a trial in spite of its artistry.
*An alcoholic solution containing morphine, prepared from opium and formerly used as a narcotic painkiller.
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