Savage Voyage

Review of Ian McGuire, The North Water

The Australian, April 23, 2016

There’s a goodly amount of pen-chewing seriousness in the literary press. And that’s all fine. But I aim to stick a smile on the face of the tired commuter, which usually involves slinging some bon mots around. It’s hard to do, though, when writing about Ian McGuire’s The North Water, because the novel centres on a stinking whaler buggering a cabin-boy then strangling him and shoving his body in a water-barrel. And that’s the sort of thing that takes the wind from my jape-sails. So, instead let me try to put a look of aghast wonder on your mug as I tell you of one of the best and most confronting books I’ve read in years – a violent, brilliant, profane novel about nineteenth-century whaling.

Patrick Sumner is a former army surgeon, blurred by laudanum and seeking a new life after a sin during the Siege of Delhi ruins his military career and sense of himself. Henry Drax is a booze-rotten whaler with unrepentantly savage appetites – in the first chapter, he smashes a drunk’s head in with a brick and rapes and murders a teenage boy. We follow these dual protagonists as they join the crew of the Volunteer, a whaler headed to the Arctic Circle under the command of Brownlee, whose last voyage ended in shipwreck and cannibalism. In Sumner’s cabin, lit by the “eggish light of a blubber lamp”, the surgeon reads Greek while aloft on grains of laudanum. But he soon suspects Drax’s evil, and seeks redemption in the stalking of a fiend.

The great achievement of The North Water is in hauling history back to life. McGuire achieves this with a style that owes much – in the best way – to Hilary Mantel’s. Structurally, his close-follow third person narrative, delivered in present tense, animates an imagined past. But it’s his prose that really does it. Tactile and corporeal, McGuire’s writing evokes the nineteenth century with visceral immediacy.

McGuire is alive to the smell of the past. The North Water opens to “turpentine, fish-meal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning piss-stink of just emptied night jars … a smell of coal dust and giblets”. Smell is used to set scenes, and make the reader feel present in them. It enlivens characters: from gentlemen, with odors of “sealing wax, and cloves”, to Drax, whose “barnyard scent” is “dense and almost edible”.

The physical descriptions of characters are pungent and realist, conscious of nineteenth-century hygiene and medicine. We see the “grimy sway of a woman’s skirts”, faces with “greenish teeth” and tongues “the colour of a pig’s liver”. The Volunteer’s crew are the “filth and shite of the dockyards.” They “grumble out” farts and shit noisily in buckets; bodies are coated in dirt and the “blue fringes” of tattoos. The dialogue is harsh, wry, and fantastically profane: “I’ll slice you open like a fucking codfish” is about as polite as it gets.

McGuire renders the violence of this past in vibrant detail. The crew massacre seals, leaving “the ice pack…as spattered and filthy as a butcher’s apron”; Sumner dreams of a shot colleague, whose “head explodes in a brief carnation of blood and bone.” After killing a whale, the men are “empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish’s steaming, expectorated gore”. They stab curious sharks with “blubber spades… A loose-knit garland of entrails, pink, red, and purple, slurps immediately from the wound. The injured shark thrashes for a moment, then bends backwards and starts urgently gobbling its own insides.” Flensing, murder, surgery, killing dogs with hammers and ripping open bears – The North Water’s gore is delivered in sinewy, literary prose that slams home the privations of the era.

There is literally nothing chocolate boxy about this historical novel. In fact, if there was a chocolate box in The North Water, it would be stamped into the mud, bled on, shat on, then blown to shreds by a shotgun. At several points I vocally gave thanks for modern plumbing, medicine, and deodorants.

The North Water is, ultimately, about good and evil, and McGuire’s skillful rendering of the physical grotesque complements his study of its moral counterpart. There is nothing prurient in McGuire’s depiction of Drax’s horrors. Instead, McGuire boldly brings the reader into the subjective consciousness of evil, driven blindly by a violent, animal “thirst”: Drax “doesn’t plan these things. He only acts, and each action remains separate and complete”. Against Drax’s villainy, McGuire charts Sumner’s scrabble to regain his moral centre through the voyage’s hardships, his breaking into component moral parts when shipwrecked on the ice, and Sumner’s ultimate return to Britain as a more authentic, but less decent, man. Sumner’s journey into the physical and moral wilds of the north waters lays claim to the heritage of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, not least by referencing Conrad’s iconic “whited sepulchre”. Most writers couldn’t pull that off. McGuire does.

McGuire is a laureate of the fierce and bloody, the reeking and torn. The North Water is confronting and savage, but that is part of its high literary value – an unflinching study of evil and the violence of the past. This is triumphant literary work, reinforcing that all the feckless snobberies about historical fiction as a “lesser genre” have been blown apart after Mantel’s two Bookers for her Tudor-era Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies. The North Water deserves that sort of accolade. Do read it – just not while you’re eating.

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