The Cold Ferocity of ‘The North Water’ by Ian McGuire

Ian McGuire is an old friend of mine from graduate school, but that fact should not lead you to take my praise for his novel, The North Water, lightly. He has written an exciting, dark, violent novel that will appeal to readers who like historical fiction as well as those looking for a bit of adventure reading.

The novel primarily follows Patrick Sumner, an Irish doctor who is dishonorably discharged from the army and tries to restart his life as a whaling ship’s doctor with the whaling fleet in northern England. Among the crew he meets on the Volunteer is Henry Drax who is among the most depraved and evil characters you’ll read in a contemporary novel. Driven by nothing more than his next desire, Drax is a dark coldness that is far more frightening than anything the arctic waters can dish out.

The book is set at the end of the whaling industry’s life, and whales are few and far between in the north waters. It turns out the captain and boat’s financier have ulterior plans, but Drax and, in a different way, Sumner, turn those plans awry. How McGuire handles all the twists in this plot is half the fun of reading this novel.

The other half the fun is McGuire’s deft writing. Here he describes Sumner as he tracks a polar bear:

The bear’s sharp, snakelike head is upraised; its broad body, heavy-shouldered and vast across the withers, stands fixed and certain. Sumner, shielding his eyes from the falling snow, takes a slow step forwards, then stops. The bear is unconcerned. It sniffs the ground, then turns in a slow pacing circle, ending where it began. Sumner stands and watches. The bear comes closer, but he doesn’t move away. He can see the texture of its coat now, the dark semi-quadrants of its claws against the snow. The bear yawns once, bares his fangs, and then, without warning or obvious purpose, rears upwards on its hind limbs like a circus animal and dangles for a moment, suspended like a limestone obelisk against the pelting, moon-stained sky.

The tension of the moment is reflected in McGuire’s alternation between long and short sentences, and his precise descriptions further serve to build the suspense. His writing is equally taut when describing an exciting moment at sea or among the seedy locales of a seaside village. Indeed, anyone who enjoys a bit of excitement in a novel is bound to enjoy The North Water.

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