Patrick Sumner is an ex-army surgeon running from his past. Henry Drax is a harpooner with an insatiable thirst for blood. Both board the Volunteer, a whaling ship setting out from Hull to hunt for blubber in the Arctic Circle. As they head north, the secondary purpose of the expedition unfolds together with the cataclysmic depravity of Drax’s nature. Can Sumner, lost in the grips of a laudanum addiction and feelings of deep emptiness, fight against Drax and find his way through the winter and home?
What I loved about The North Water, but which I must caution potential readers against, is the sheer vulgarity of the language and images that McGuire includes in his story. Do not read this book if you have a queasy stomach, but if you’re looking to experience survival, and humanity at its most twisted and animalistic, this is the book for you. It is a thrilling story that you will not put down until its hollow, bloody end.
In an interview with the New York Times Book Review podcast, McGuire explains how Herman Melville’s Moby Dick influenced the story in The North Water. In Moby Dick, McGuire says, Melville turns whaling into a heroic enterprise, with Captain Ahab acting as the tragic figure, and a philosophical exploration of the human condition. For his book, McGuire wanted to push back on these ideas and show whaling in its more brutal, bloody, and material form. The North Water is certainly all of these things. (Check out the podcast from December 9, 2016, titled “10 Best Books of 2016” to hear it for yourself, or just click here!)
All in all, if you’re looking for a thrill and are a fan of authors who specialize in the brutal, such as Cormac McCarthy, then I think this book is for you. Expect blood, death, and a whole lot of swearing.
Story: 4 // Craft: 4 // Entertainment: 5 // Nastiness: off the freaking charts.