The air is filled with the foetid blast of butchery and excrement. Drax feels pleasure at this work, arousal, a craftsman’s sense of pride. Death, he believes, is a kind of making, a kind of building up. What was one thing, he thinks, is become something else.’

A gloriously bloody novel, Ian McGuire’s The North Water has been one of my top reads so far this year. As a fan of polar exploration both real and imagined, I had looked forward to reading this book for a long time. When I finally got my hands on a copy, I was delighted to see that it did not disappoint.

Set at the turn of the 20th Century, The North Water unfolds as a brutal, murderous tale built around the misadventures of Patrick Sumner. Sumner is an ex-army surgeon with a dodgy past and is attempting to escape his shortcomings by joining the crew of the Volunteer. 

His plan is to dissolve, to dissipate and only afterwards, some time later, to re-form.’

Upon this ship he finds a crew of misfits no better than himself. Together they are bound on a journey up to the perilous cold and ice of the North Water. Not long after their departure to the Arctic Circle however, the murder of a cabin boy and the behaviour of the ship’s captain allude to a much more sinister plot than a whaling expedition.

Central to the ensuing brutality and the real star of the novel is the uber-villian Henry Drax. The reader meets Drax in the opening chapter and it immediately becomes clear that he is a vicious thug of the lowest morale standing.

‘Drax goes swiftly through the motions: one action following the next, passionless and precise, machine-like, but not mechanical. He grasps onto the world like a dog biting into bone – nothing is obscure to him, nothing is separate from his fierce and surly appetites… This courtyard has become a place of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations, and Henry Drax is its wild, unholy engineer.’

Drax lives by his own violent code and his musings on the darkness of the world and those around him make him a very interesting character. Such archetypal villains, normally bound by a collection of unsavoury vices, are easy to manipulate but impossible to control. This makes Drax an excellent agent of chaos throughout the story. Sumner’s narrative of wartime loss, near death experiences and struggle for survival may make up most of the novel, but it is Henry Drax who will haunt your dreams long after putting the book down.

Reading The North Water put me in mind of one of my all time favourite reads, John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing. I also thought that it had many elements of Michael Punke’s The Revenant and one could make some easy comparisons with the work of Jack London or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Ultimately, for me though, this book rightly earns its own place up there with those well-loved reads. The North Water is an interesting and entertaining read from start to finish and is one that you will want to pass on.

Affection is a passing thing. A beast is no different from a person in that regard.’

Afterthoughts

  • A burly whaler named Otto is the only member of the Volunteer‘s crew who seems to retain any positive characteristics of the human race. In fact, Otto’s philosophical ramblings are an unexpected highlight of the novel.
  • The North Water was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2016.
  • Currently, this book is only 99p on the amazon kindle store. I strongly recommend that you buy it now! Click here to find out more.

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