Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The North Water by Ian McGuire

Ian McGuire uses the setting of the whaling industry to explore the dynamics of good vs evil.  The novel is set in England in the mid-1800's as the industry is starting to end as the whales were hunted out of existence and alternative fuels were developed.  It follows a ship to the far North and documents the tragedies that overcame it.

There are no heroes in this novel, only men of differing amounts of evil.  The protagonist, Patrick Sumner, the ship's surgeon, has returned from a military career in India.  He was discharged involuntarily and his reputation shattered after an agreement between men in his company went awry and he was left to take the consequences.  Unable to find work back in England, he agrees to become the ship's doctor on the whaling ship Volunteer.

He is contrasted by a man of pure evil, Henry Drax, a harpooner.  Drax has no lofty ambition or goals.  His only thoughts are to get whatever he wants at the moment whether that is a woman, drink, or money.  He will do anything to get what he wants.  Violence is his second nature and he is not bound by any qualms of morality.  This often gives him an edge in situations.

The ship sets sail.  After a promising start things start to go awry.  The ship is trapped in the frigid waters of the Artic long after it should have left.  The crew become surly and unsure of what the captain's plans are.  When a crime occurs onboard, it leads to open rebellion and the acrimony between Sumner and Drax comes to a head.  Which man will be successful?

The North Water has been long-listed for the 2016 Mann Booker prize.  It has been recommended by writers such as Hilary Mantel, Martin Amis and Ron Rash.  McGuire grew up in Hull, England and studied at the University of Manchester and the University of Virginia.  He is widely regarded as a rising star in British writing.  Readers will be swept up in the drama of whaling and the age-old fight between good and evil.  This book is recommended for readers of historical and literary fiction.

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