Ian McGuire’s THE NORTH WATER reads a little like Cormac McCarthy, a little like Joseph Conrad, to provide a unique and brutal tale about whaling in the 1800s and the illusion of morality.
The story centers on two men: Henry Drax, a harpooner about to sail with THE VOLUNTEER, a whaling ship, and Patrick Sumner, a disgraced Army surgeon fresh from the Indian Mutiny and looking to escape civilization a while by joining the expedition. Drax lives in the moment and does what he likes, an amoral man committing immoral acts. Sumner means well and believes in humanity’s innate goodness and potential, but is continually suffering the consequences of the ill machinations of men claiming to have good on their side.
The story is simple: THE VOLUNTEER ventures into the Arctic and finds disaster, putting Drax and Sumner on a collision course. The writing is extraordinary, a spare, compelling prose that turns pages, brings the past to life, and elevates the mundane brutality to something like myth. The moral of the story is also simple, revealed in Sumner’s decision to bend morality’s elastic quality to his own benefit and survival, pushed to the point of giving up his illusions.
The tale concludes with less of a bang than one would expect given the long setup, but overall, it’s a powerful ride. I greatly enjoyed it as historical fiction and for its compelling storytelling and themes.