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Saturday, July 15, 2017

The North Water

The North Water, by Ian McGuire, is the kind of story you might call a "yarn." Set primarily on a whaling ship in the waters around Greenland, it has primordial conflicts: man indifferent and unsentimental nature, and man vs. evil, in the guise of man. Right now it's the best book I've read all year.

It is in the 1850s in Hull, England. "He shuffles out of Clappison’s courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air—turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning-piss stink of just-emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head, and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money’s worth." In Chapter One we are introduced to Drax, one of the more villainous characters in recent literature. He's signed up for a whaling voyage, but before he goes he murders someone. He's not done.

The ship is the Volunteer, owned by a Mr. Baxter, captained by Brownlee. Our eyes and ears will be Patrick Sumner, the ship's surgeon, who was trounced out of the army after being framed in India. He is a man of rational thought and a forward thinker, much out of place among the scalawags aboard a whaling ship. But there is a harpooner named Otto who is a religious philosopher, and the first mate Cavendish, is a foppish fellow.

Whaling is a dying business, as they have caught and killed most of them. We learn that Baxter and Brownlee have made a deal to sink the ship for the insurance money, but before that happens a cabin boy, who had been sodomized, is brutally murdered. Pretty much everything goes to hell after that, and there is so much suspense and surprises that I dare not share more.

What makes The North Water great is that it is written in a style that evokes Victorian novels--for example, the characters speak in a kind of formal English interspersed with vulgarity, and thus we get the archaic spelling of "Esquimeaux," but it easily accessible to today's reader. There are no digressions, such as those that turn people off from Moby Dick; it's a trim, fast-paced adventure, with lots of derring-do and the death of a polar bear: "He drops the blubber knife onto the snow and pushes both his bare hands down into the dead bear’s steaming guts. His frozen fingers feel like they might burst apart from the warmth. He grinds his teeth and pushes his hands in deeper. When the pain reduces, he pulls them out, dripping with red, rubs his face and beard with the hot blood, then picks up the knife again and begins to sever and remove the bear’s innards."

It's also one of those books that make you glad you live in modern times, such as when Sumner operates on someone using only ether to empty out bile from the stomach.

I love sea adventures, and especially those that take place near the poles,so I was inclined to like The North Water from the beginning, but it more than lived up to my expectations. It's a must read.

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