A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’m not a big fan of the novel Moby Dick – when a friend of mine recently mentioned he was embarking on a third reading of Melville’s classic my response was that he had read it two and a half times more than I had. Maybe it’s the plodding prose. Maybe it’s the blubber.
The North Water has some blubber, but not too much and the prose in this gripping pageturner never plods. Here’s the set up: whaling ship The Volunteer sails from Hull to the North Water of Greenland on the hunt for oil. The whales are almost gone and the recent discovery of mineral oil has caused the market to collapse, yet its owner an unscrupulous local merchant, insists his over-insured vessel makes one final trip. On board The Volunteer are a notoriously mishap-prone captain, a foulmouthed mate, a laudanum-addicted ship’s surgeon and a motley crew of Shetlanders and morose Germans. And a psychopath who likes to rape and murder children.
What could possibly go wrong in this situation?
Everything. The Volunteer does little damage to the Greenland whale population before disaster strikes. And strikes again. And again. From Moby Dick to Endurance by way of Jack London, there are few catastrophes the crew of The Volunteer manages to avoid. Most afflicted is Sumner, the ship’s doctor, who alone of all the men retains both some shred of conscience and the will to survive. It’s through Sumner that the story is told, horror by horror, until the story thunders to a close, never pausing to draw breath. I loved it from start to finish and not just for the breakneck plot, but for McGuire’s fabulous writing, which conjures up 19th century Hull, the cramped and noisome conditions on board ship and the white despair of the Arctic wilderness with sharp and pungent economy. Here Sumner, on his way to board The Volunteer, pauses to shoot the breeze with a beggar:
The beggar, whose face is riddled with smallpox scars and whose truncated body halts abruptly just below the groin, shakes his head and giggles wheezily.
“If you chose to ship with Brownlee, you fucked yourself up the arse,” he says. “Right royally.”
Sumner has indeed fucked himself up the arse, but at the same time as McGuire tells Victorian Britain like it is, he also gives the reader passages of sublime beauty. Coal-dark mountains rise ashen tipped from the hammered greyness of the sea, bands of fog lie like layered quartz, the galloping, rhythmical whiteness of a polar bear fades gradually into the broader and more static whiteness of the floe. It’s the contrast of the spaciousness of these moments with the claustrophobia of the violence which gives The North Water its heft and elevates it from pageturner to a truly great book. It’s one I will return to, like my friend has to Melville, whenever I need a horizon broader than the one in front of me, or a reminder that when we pit ourselves against the forces of nature, the only thing we really need to fear are other men.
Ian McGuire: The North Water (Scribner UK, 11 February 2016). ISBN 978-1471151248, RRP £11.99