In a dark and brutal novel that is not for the weak of stomach, Ian McGuire follows the ill-fated journey of the Volunteer, a whaling ship bound for hunting in the icy waters of the Arctic Circle. It’s a dark ride, a combination of Jack London, Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy, and there is not one sentence that shies away from vivid descriptions of flesh, blood and every other bodily fluid. McGuire’s protagonist and hero in The North Water is an Irish surgeon, Patrick Sumner, who is a survivor of a particularly horrific combat experience early in his medical career, in which the opium-addicted surgeon thinks he has seen the absolute worst of human savagery. Little does he know how depraved men can be.
The novel’s anti-hero is the brutish Henry Drax. Once at sea, Drax is evil incarnate, and when a teenage cabin boy is sodomized and choked to death, Drax becomes the chief suspect. The death of the youngster begins a series of calamities aboard the Volunteer, including a vicious encounter with a polar bear, a collision with an iceberg and assorted other chaos.
McGuire writes with a matter-of-fact style that perfectly fits the events that unfold. The author is most as ease describing the increasing doom. You feel the sting and ache of frostbite, the hours of desolate loneliness and tedium contrasted by outbreaks of horrible violence. McGuire forces us to consider what leads men to seek such exile and fortune against such terrible odds. What is it, he asks us to ponder, that these men are fleeing and, ultimately, what is it they are bound to discover? Grade: A