The North Water was one of the titles from last year’s Man Booker Prize long list and I was impressed. This is an excellent piece of historical fiction, which crosses the boundaries into the thriller genre. It works equally well in both.
Having finished the book, I reflected on why I enjoyed it so much. The plot is good, the action is nicely paced with no slow patches and the characters are real and believable. The setting is both gritty and realistic. I also have the lasting impression of lots of dialogue. Most of what we discern in The North Water is given to the reader through dialogue, without much need for backstory or narrative.
The North Water is the story of an English whaling ship that sails out of Hull and heads for the Arctic. It is the second half of the nineteenth century when whale oil is still used for lighting and whale-bone corsets are still making female waists unnaturally small. But times are changing and there may not be much life left in the whaling industry. Our cast is made up of a motley crew, an unreliable and devious owner and a ship’s surgeon. Patrick Sumner, the Irish surgeon, has some shady elements in his past but becomes our hero and central character. Part of the novel’s success is the way our fondness for Sumner grows as we put behind us his past misdemeanours. He emerges as a survivor too, having almost died as he slips into the frozen ocean trying to haul out a seal. He combines a kindly streak, such as for a captured polar bear cub, and enough ruthlessness to make him a survivor in a ship full of rogues.
Life on a whaling ship is grim and the narrative pulls no punches when it comes to describing shooting seals, killing bears or lancing wounds. The language is as rough and course as the characters described. I think this combination is the key to success. The book feels real. It could be lifted straight out of a sailor’s diary, not imagined well over a century later.
All the characters are male, and the book begins with a glimpse into the life of Henry Drax and his last few hours before leaving port for the Arctic. Drinking, swearing, assault, rape and murder all heave through the opening chapter, leaving us in no doubt that we are in for a tense thriller all the way to the Arctic and back. Ian McGuire’s skill is to maintain that tension all the way through the novel.
I grew to like Patrick Sumner the ship’s surgeon, and I would like to meet him again one day because I am sure there is more to tell. He is a survivor, as well as being lucky. Perhaps it is the luck of the Irish.
A highly recommended, tense historical thriller.