The North Water by Ian McGuire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The North Water by Ian McGuire is a riveting thriller of high literary quality, one that I zipped through. It was longlisted for the Booker in 2016, and I wish it had got further in the race. These are the kind of books which are a perfect bridge between those wanting a satisfying literary experience as well as those just wanting a rollicking good read.

The year is 1859 and the whaling industry is already facing the problems resulting from years of the mindless slaughter of these magnificent mammals for their oil. Apart from the fact that the whales are actually drying up there are problems of demand too, with whale oil starting to be replaced by other sources. But there are still enough ships making their way to the Arctic waters in search of them. One of these is the Volunteer, captained by Brownlee, a seaman trying to come out of the ashes of his sullied reputation from a prior ill-fated voyage. Every ship needs a doctor on board as per regulations, even if the actual work a doctor may have on board is limited. This is where the protagonist of this seafaring tale, Patrick Sumner comes into the picture. Unbeknownst to the Captain, Sumner is an ex-Army surgeon trying to recover from the repercussions of a misadventure gone terribly wrong while on his duty in India which resulted in him being removed from hi duties in disgrace. While a whaling adventure to the frigid Arctic seas may have its own inconveniences for the good doctor, the biggest danger he and others on the ship face is from Henry Drax, master harpooner and a brutal thug seemingly devoid of emotions. In fact, the opening passages of the book are built on Drax and he manages both a murder and a rape in the first few pages. The denizens of a whaling ship are not expected to be soft-hearted gentlemen, as Brownlee tells Sumner, but Drax is a devil even amongst them. A murder on board is a harbinger of further doom, and the ship and its sailors find themselves moored on the Arctic ice having to battle the elements as well as the devil within their ranks. Soon, most of them are facing a question of when, not if, they will succumb to the elements. Sumner himself needs to draw on all his reserves of mental fortitude to make his way to safety, while in the background Drax is plotting his own survival.

It’s intense, brutally evocative of the frigid Arctic landscape it wants to emulate, and convincingly plotted. The change in landscape from colonial-era India to the cloistered confines of the ship and its environs are impressively detailed as are the motivations of the major players. While greed leading to our own destruction is a timeless theme, over here it’s made especially relevant in the callous way a few of the decision makers play with the fates of many in order to make a quick buck on a sinking industry. The sequences involving the harpooning and trussing of the whales, though not for the queasy of stomach, are grippingly portrayed as is the dangers of being left for dead in the water or the ice.

I’ve heard of the well-made series of the same book (with Colin Farrell intriguingly playing Drax) and I definitely intend to give it a go. As I also intend to do with other titles by the same author.

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