Book Review: The North Water
Behold the man.”
It’s with this boisterous exclamation The North Water kicks off.
Reading on for a few pages and you might as well be casting a few furtive glances at the cover page and taking in the name Ian Mcguire — lip syncing it wide-eyed. Further on, time slips by unknowingly, as you skim pages at brow-signing speed. The book manacles you to a steering wheel-less speedboat for a ride through the bloody waters, populated by hairy harpooners, shady surgeons, callous cutthroats, audacious aborigines and schemers on many a schooners, leaving you smeared in gout and gut and grime aplenty.
You swat aside the sludge, delving deep into it, in search of mysteries (and plot) — only to rise above it all, purple with choked chagrin.
The North Water is not a sea story to begin with. True, the plot brickwork happens on the whaler The Volunteer, but, in a bid to make it slicker than the classics of its genre, this Ian Mcguire work compromises the essential sea novel’s traits: nautical detailing, snide, spitting dialogues and charismatic characters. The great sea stories of yore are populated with distinctive, doughty seamen armed with quotable lines — crippled but canny (Long John Silver), fey and noble (Captain Bligh), “ungodly god-like man” (Captain Ahab), and real-life survivors of great perils (Apsley Cherry Gerrard, Richard Henry Dana Jr.) come to mind.
And Ian Mcguire dearly needed those swashbuckling characters — and rasping dialogues — to carry the threadbare, and often simplistic, plot The North Water has on offer.
Set in the latter half of 19th century, with the whaling industry teetering on its last legs, The Volunteer departs Hull carrying the killer harpooner Drax, surgeon Sumner and a handful of other shaky first-mates and cabin boys all captained by the equally shady Brownlee. Blood spills on decks — black and purple and red and black again, garnished with white brain mass and sleazy seal carcass — and flows liberally on waters and land. Murders (and molestation) happen with off-handed regularity, even as The Volunteer steers northward in search of whales — that elusive of all beasts inspiring writers from time bygone. Narrated in third-person and shunning any opportunity to keep its cards hidden, the novel, blood and secrets leaking incessantly from it onto water and ice, eventually sides with Sumner and jettisons him through the gore-ridden skirmishes of Arctic winter in an attempt to weave a redemptive story, one though fantastically fast-paced and engaging, lacks depth or structure to it. Mcguire tries unsuccessfully to lend a tone of spiritual semblance, almost as an afterthought, and it’s this attempt that is most painful to read.
The story is too loosely knit and sadly so, for it builds the atmosphere to home in as a hardboiled novel. While it certainly might never make it to the classic sea novels shelves, because of its shallow and all visible narrative it is hard to recommend this as an outright thriller, too.
What makes this overtly plain book tick, though, is Ian Mcguire’s well-oiled writing. As if relishing the violent premises on offer, Mcguire comes up with sumptuous, if sadistic, similies. (His victims upon killed “shudder like a fish drowning in the open air.”) The imagery of Arctic environs, in all its glacial richness and bleak starkness, is strikingly portrayed with lyrically embellished language. The fluid prose skims and slithers with impeccably timed chapters that keep the reader devouring insatiably —spilled beans though they turn out to be. Alas! The bold and beautiful writing motors on, even as the loosely coupled plot slackens to a whimpering halt.
The North Water ends up as a superficial paperback, one of those page-turners you pick at stations to while through a dull journey. One that you promptly bin depending on whichever that ends first: story or travel.
However, in much anticipation, I, too, would say, “Behold the man.” Here, I mean, Ian Mcguire.
[Do smear the heart green and recommend.]