All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The North Water by Ian McGuire

on April 19, 2017

The North Water
Ian McGuire
Scribner
2016, 326p
Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A ship sets sail with a killer on board….

1859. A man joins a whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle. Having left the British Army, his reputation in tatters, Patrick Sumner has little option but to accept the position of ship’s surgeon on this ill-fated voyage.

But when, deep into the journey, a boy is discovered brutally killed, Sumner finds himself becoming a reluctant detective. Soon he will face an evil even greater than that he had encountered at the siege of Delhi, in the shape of Henry Drax: harpooner, murderer, monster…

Well, this book was interesting.

And I say that in a good way. It’s one of those books where I’m not sure I could say wow, I absolutely loved that, because it’s a gruesome, twisted, savage book. In more ways than one. I picked it up to read on a lovely sunny day when I had a few hours to kill before I had to pick my kids up from school. It was the words ‘Arctic Circle’ that drew me in. I love anything set either there or Antarctica – I find both landscapes pretty fascinating and will pretty much pick up anything to do with them.

This is a very brutal book, everything about it is brutal. The men are coarse, and with the exception of Patrick, seemingly uneducated and borderline savage (some have definitely crossed that line). The language, whilst perhaps quite accurate for the characters, is confronting and the actions even more so. The ship Volunteer is heading out for a whaling expedition but the tide is turning. There are faster, cheaper methods of heating now and blubber is becoming a thing of the past. The captain of the Volunteer, a man who already lost a ship and most of a crew is dubious of his current crew, put together by a sly man with an ulterior motive. Among them are Henry Drax, a man who has zero morals and pretty disgusting proclivities, and Patrick Sumner, a surgeon fresh from discharge from the Army after conflict in Delhi. Sumner is the odd man out here – he’s a surgeon, he’s more polished and civilised than the others on the ship and he’s unwilling to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour when he’s presented with the evidence of it. Sumner for sure does have his faults – an addiction to laudanum, a dubious departure from the Army, a vague story about an inheritance coming to him that is probably untrue, but he’s a world apart from some of the other men on this ship.

The book is rife with lavish descriptions of the harpooners clubbing baby seals, skinning them, shooting polar bears and harpooning whales. To be honest, it’s not for the fainthearted. The actions of the men and the resulting horrific effects on the animals go on for pages and pages and it makes for uncomfortable reading. It can be hard to immerse yourself in a time so different to the one you live in, when normal actions for that time are so objectionable to the current time. The men are crude, tormenting animals for sport and entertainment, chuckling to themselves over distress or savage self-defense.

Despite this, I found the story itself of the voyage of the Volunteer fascinating. The machismo power plays, the ulterior motives, trying to piece together what was really going on. There were definitely some unexpected moments, things that happened that made me really interested to see where it was going. And when everything seems hopeless, I was hooked to see how any of the men might get themselves out of what had happened. Patrick was an interesting narrator. I’m not sure I admired him – I felt sorry for him, when his story unfolded. I think he’d certainly been through quite a lot, some really horrible stuff and then he was betrayed. I wasn’t sure if the laudanum came from his injury or was for some other reason and I’m not sure it’s ideal to have the ship’s surgeon dependent on substances either but at least he cared for people’s welfare and well-being. His meddling did actually end up making things worse in a way but it came from the right place and he was determined to see that the right person was punished for it. The other men on the ship were happy to believe the first person accused but Patrick wasn’t so complacent and he never gave up investigating, asking questions until he had the right man. From there things really escalate and the pace is fast and really kept me hooked.

Part of my desire to read on was I think, a need to see that person punished. To make sure that justice was served in the end, because it could’ve gone either way for a large portion of the story. So I really wanted to see that out to it’s natural (or unnatural!) conclusion.

So like I mentioned earlier….I’m not sure I can say I really enjoyed this book. But I certainly found it really intriguing and I was kept interested the whole way through. The subject matter and most of the characters make for some depressing reading at times and it’s very gory and there’s a lot of usage of my least favourite word but I’m sure it’s authentic to the time and setting. But it’s set in a harsh and unforgiving part of the world too, so I’m sure that to survive, you have to have some sort of harsh, unforgiving side. It’s not for the weak or faint at heart – kill or be killed, do what it takes to survive or perish. The atmosphere is superb – McGuire definitely nails that be it the rough taverns before setting sail, the close quarters of the ship or the vast whiteness of the North. So a lot definitely impressed me and I think this one is a prime example of a book I can read and appreciate the quality of writing, attention to detail, skill of setting, etc, even if it isn’t precisely the kind of story I enjoy reading and would naturally gravitate towards.

7/10

Book #73 of 2017

 

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