I’ve had a copy of “The North Water” for ages and part of me wishes I’d read it in the midst of winter to add atmosphere to the reading experience. It’s an immersive story so full of vivid descriptions it made me shiver as if I were trapped in a snowstorm and wrinkle my nose as if I could smell the pungency of sailors long at sea. This dramatic account of a treacherous ocean voyage follows a Yorkshire whaling ship, the Volunteer, as it journeys up the coast of Greenland into the arctic during the mid-1800s. An Irish surgeon named Patrick Sumner, who has a murky past working in the army in Delhi, joins the vessel’s crew as they set out to hunt whales and skin polar bears. But others on the crew have alternative motives for the voyage including Captain Brownlee, first mate Cavendish and a terrifyingly violent harpooner Henry Drax. As they journey into the treacherous iceberg-laden seas Patrick and the crew face perils both within and outside of their ship. This novel is a gripping adventure story of the highest order which gives a penetrating look into the darkest acts that men are capable of.
There are plenty of thrills, but it is not simply about heart-racing scenes. I think McGuire is doing something more sophisticated in this account of the strife his characters encounter when they venture out into the raw and untamed elements. Here a person’s identity is indelibly tied into their daily actions which involve life or death decision making. Patrick reasons that “Only actions count, he thinks for the ten thousandth time, only events.” It’s these events at sea which define these sailors’ identities. Rather than meditating on purpose or how to go forward in the future there is only meaning in how these men conduct themselves under highly pressured circumstances. Later Patrick reasons “It is a grave mistake to think too much, he reminds himself, a grave mistake. Life will not be puzzled out, or blathered into submission, it must be lived through, survived, in whatever fashion a man can manage.” The test of will these sailors pit themselves against determines whether they survive and only then does life shape into meaning.
There is something wonderfully indulgent in McGuire’s powerful descriptions of the hyper-masculine environment of seafaring living. It’s full of gritty honesty about bodily smells and functions not to mention the hyper violence which is inextricably a part of hunting the ocean and arctic plains. Although it may turn a reader’s stomach at times it unquestionably makes the story come vibrantly alive. However, there are also lines of tremendous grace and beauty, especially when McGuire describes the landscape: “The black sky is dense with stars and upon its speckled blank, the borealis unfurls, bends back, reopens again like a vast and multi-coloured murmuration.”
Since the majority of the novel takes place on the ship there are very few female characters. There is nothing polite or politically correct about these hard men whose language is full of racial invectives and disdain for women. It’s a pleasure when these men come under critique themselves such as the wonderful line: “Pigs grunt, ducks quack and men tell lies: that is how it generally goes.” Yet, the author skilfully draws distinctions between men who are ruled by selfish instinct and those who have more of a sensitivity and moral conscience. There’s also a refreshing representation of a homosexual sailor who is neither a “pansy” nor someone who suppresses/denies his sexuality, but finds himself in an extremely difficult situation when events take a dark turn.
Periodically throughout their journey Sumner reads from The Illiad. It’s interesting that he mediates upon this book rather than the Odyssey which is the journey he more inhabits. Yet, it’s appropriate as the character is plagued by memories of what happened during his time at war in Delhi. The victims in this story (whether they be people in war or animals slaughtered during hunts) take residence in the minds of the men who manage to survive these battlefields. It creates a haunting message about the transformation of personality when men are involved in the most harrowing conditions imaginable. This novel is a true experience: brutal and completely gripping.