The North Water by Ian McGuire is by far the most brutal book I have ever read. Set in 1859 the whaling industry is dwindling as the use of petroleum is increasing and the whales in the sea are decreasing from overfishing. Pushing whalers further and further north the journey becomes much more risky and dangerous for the boats and crewmen aboard. The Volunteer is one such ship that sets out in search of whales. This trip should be like another, however, this ship is carrying a murderer and Patrick Sumner, the ship’s surgeon is determined to discover who is responsible, all the while covering up his own past.
While this book may be the most violent I have ever read, there was an honesty in this brutality that takes the reader to this exact time and place. The gore comes in the form of violence and abuse to simple bodily functions and medical procedures. Even the language is coarse and blunt. One can imagine exactly what it was like to be around in this day and age. McGuire, in his session at Adelaide Writers Week, was quick to point out that there were some lines he wouldn’t cross and before he could even mention it my mind jumped to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. McGuire mentions McCarthy and Herman Melville as influences on his novel and one can see the links within the pages.
This is not your typical “who dunnit” mystery. The killer is clear from the opening pages as we meet out villain, Drax. This tactic was used by McGuire to keep the reader looking forward at what was happening, what could happen. Not looking backwards to try understand who it could have been, how it happened. From the beginning we are aware that Henry Drax is our killer. Drax is animalistic, a pure predator who doesn’t think a ahead, who lives in the moment with no thought to consequences. A brilliant device used by McGuire was using a heightened sense of smell when discussing Drax, demonstrating these animalistic links. His cold-blooded unpredictability and skill of self-preservation is terrifying and McGuire has created the ultimate villain devoid of emotion or morals.
Sumner, the ships physician is the moral compass who aims for justice but just doesn’t have the push to truly take control or responsibility for the station at hand. Sumner’s past is sketchy and the reader enjoys the journey of understanding how he comes to be on the Volunteer, a job seemingly beneath him. Overall The North Water was a very fast-paced read that I would highly recommend. Just be prepared for the gore that comes with it but don’t be discouraged, a unique reading experience is to be gained within these pages. I give The North Water four elusive whales.