WOW, what a story. It’s like a punch in the solar plexus.
The North Water follows Irish surgeon Patrick Sumner on board an ill-fated whaler outfitted with murderers and corruptibles in 1857. Sumner himself has a tormented past and is using The Voyager to flee from his sins. Little does he know that worse things are aboard the ship than he could have ever faced on land. When all other whalers are heading south to chase their quarry, The Voyager heads farther north, into pack ice and madness.
There are no bonny, sea-weathered blokes having a gam in this book. This story is all murderous plotting and barbarism. Based on the true accounts I’ve read from actual whalers, McGuire’s fiction isn’t far off the mark.
At less than 300 pages, The North Water is a quick read, but the pacing is, at times, too inconsistent. In some parts I was just starting to feel the desperation, the isolation, the grueling, unfathomable cold, and McGuire moved on. I wanted more story with Sumner’s bear hunt and more time with the Yaks, but I was also content that McGuire didn’t linger too long. I’m not one to advocate filler, so I appreciate that McGuire kept the story moving. The descriptions of the grime, the tortuous ship, the starvation and deprivation are impressive. The environment on The Voyager is all viscera, excreta, and blood. This may sound gruesome, but it couldn’t have been better. His word choice is enviable. I found myself highlighting single words in order to later applaud their specificity. I think my vocabulary increased seven-fold.
The North Water is gory, bloody, corporeal. If you’re at all squeamish, as in “can’t handle Tarantino films,” then this is not for you. Unlike some readers, I didn’t find the brutality and violence overbearing at all. This book requires it, or it wouldn’t work. A story set in the 19th century about a psychologically-tormented, drug-addicted surgeon aboard a cursed ship full of pedophillic murders and mutinous traitors isn’t going to be full of cupcakes and rainbows. I for, one, enjoyed it enormously. If you have the stomach for it, dive in. You won’t regret it.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Henry Holt & Co. for this advance copy.