Viscera on Ice, No Twist
It’s 1857 and Patrick Sumner, a physician with a dark past, signs on as ship’s doctor to The Volunteer, a whaling vessel bound for the North Sea. Everyone on the ship, seemingly, has a dark past. Captain Brownlee has agreed to sink the vessel once northward and in sight of a rescue ship, so the owner can collect the insurance. Then there’s Henry Drax. Unrepentantly evil, we first see Drax killing then raping, in that order, a young boy before he boards the ship. He’s a natural and evil force of nature. We know he’s evil because he murders people; we know he’s natural because he farts a lot and never apologizes.
Ian McGuire’s The North Water is peopled with men of dark conscience or no conscience at all.
It’s reminiscent of the Inarritu film of The Revenant in that its a stark tale of survival and revenge against all odds. This book is chock full of men being men, doing manly things, and occasionally murdering each other. There doesn’t seem to be a sun in this world, just individual hearts of darkness clashing on the ice or the open sea.
Words are just noises in a certain order, and he can use them any way he wishes. Pigs grunt, ducks quack, and men tell lies: that is how it generally goes.
The North Water certainly gives the readers the sense of the smell and circumstance of a whaling vessel and the near impossible job whaling was. Wellresearched and rife with period detail, the novel functions partly as a description of the sea-faring life. Along the way, it details Sumner’s gradual transformation from sensitive soul to manly man by way of survival in the wild But the parts of the novel McGuire seems most invested in, nearly to the point of fetishism, are those that detail bodily fluids, cracked skulls, suppurating wounds, rotting teeth, and diseased genitals. And Henry Drax’s farts. The point seems to be that we are all meat sacks with a mere pretense of morality or conscience which we freely abandon as soon as we’re out of earshot of society and that, even if we try to hold to some semblance of humanity, it’s a losing game.
Reviewers have been comparing The North Water to the work of Cormac Mc- Carthy but McGuire doesn’t have the unabiding moral razor McCarthy possesses and his violence is more titillating. For McCarthy violence is a fact of life, no more or less glamorous than breathing; his descriptions are offhand and all the more penetrating for it.
McGuire wants us to know how brutal the violence is, so he describes it in detail. The sense of manipulation that’s completely absent in McCarthy is on every page of The North Water.
That isn’t to say the book isn’t enjoyable in its own gruesome way. It’s well written, as far as that goes, and wellpaced, but I eventually found myself with viscera-fatigue. I began to feel that if one more head was caved in, one more seal bludgeoned, one more stomach incised and streaming pus, I might need to retreat to my Happy Place for a few days and watch Mister Rogers re-runs on YouTube to achieve some kind of karmic balance.
Like the film of The Revenant, McGuire’s book is larded with Native hokum (here, Esquimaux) meant to give some kind of primal urgency to Sumner’s survival and ultimate revenge. He is a white man who has endured the trials of the Arctic by killing a polar bear in an epic battle, drinking its blood for food and climbing inside its steaming cavity in order to survive a blizzard.
Of course, these ‘noble savages’ believe he has magical powers because this trope demands the acknowledgement of Sumner’s newly spiritual status, not by the English minister he encounters but by the primitives who, in this kind of book, serve as the arbiters of his new-found existential machismo, a manliness impossible to achieve, apparently, in civilized white culture.
Needless to say, there must be a final confrontation between Drax and Sumner. Drax, who remains unchanged throughout the book as a natural force of evil, and Sumner, who has found himself and his inner strength through his grueling survival in the Arctic. Sumner, of course, has moved beyond the confines of normal society, living in a kind of elevated state of knowing, and the ultimate duel isn’t that satisfying in the end.
The North Water is a great evocation of time and place and a solid adventure yarn stained with all sorts of bodily fluids, marred by a didactic morality and a certain glee in its description of suffering. Which is not to say it can’t be fun, if you’re in the right mood or have a stout ration of grog.
He feels a moment of fear, and then, in its wake, as the fear fades and loses its force, an unexpected stab of loneliness and need. !