Review: The North Water by Ian McGuire

Genre: Historical fiction/adventure

Patrick Sumner is a disgraced ex-army surgeon recently returned from the Seige of Dehli. In need of a fresh start and with no money and no references, he accepts a low-paying job aboard the Volunteer, a whaling ship bound for the Arctic.

With his opium addiction and shadowed past, Sumner initially believes he alone among the Volunteer‘s crew has something to hide. However, despite’s the ship’s name, in the dying days of the whaling trade there is scarce an honest man willing to brave the north water. It doesn’t take Sumner long to figure out that few men aboard have signed up for adventure. The voyage is rumoured to be cursed, not even the captain can be trusted and at least one among the crew has murder in mind.

The North Water (Simon & Schuster) is a dark and gripping tale of adventure and revenge on the high seas in which everyone has an agenda and no one is who they seem.

As a kid, I loved adventure stories, all the better if they included pirates, smugglers, shipwrecks, foul play and a grim fight for survival. Growing up, I read a lot of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne. More recently, I’ve enjoyed Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Michael Punke’s The Revenant. Lately, I’ve been craving more of these kinds of stories and The North Water was just the book to satisfy my need.

The story opens with a series of horrific crimes, committed in the dead of night on a seedy dockside in the hours before the Volunteer sets sail for the north—a brutal beginning that sets the mood for the voyage.

Tension rises as the Volunteer makes its way north and it becomes increasingly apparent that hunting whales may not be the real point of the trip and that the voyage may indeed be doomed.

The claustrophobia aboard the ship is broken by flashbacks to Sumner’s days as an army surgeon and the series of unfortunate events that led him aboard the Volunteer.

The plot twists and turns and I won’t say more for fear of giving too much away. The story is narrated in the third person. At times, it’s limited to Sumner’s point of view and, at others, it pans out to give a fuller picture. My one real criticism of the book was that this narrative style feels somewhat choppy. Sumner is the protagonist, but the reader doesn’t meet him until chapter two and he spends a lot of time trying to figure out things that the reader already knows, which I found a little frustrating. For example, when a cabin boy is sodomised and murdered—his body discovered in a barrel—it’s obvious to the reader who committed the crime; it’s a near-perfect parallel to one of the crimes in the opening chapter. But Sumner has no idea about the earlier crimes and a lot of fussing about with false accusations, etc. ensues. For me, the shifts in P.O.V. also made the story feel unfocused at times, and there were a few points in the middle where I caught myself thinking: This is fun, but where is it going?

I’m glad I pushed aside those niggling doubts because McGuire does gather all the threads together in the end for a satisfying resolution. P.O.V. aside, McGuire’s prose is tight and evocative, and between the characters’ rough talk and violent acts are moments of striking beauty:

The black sky is dense with stars and upon its speckled blank, the borealis unfurls, bends back, reopens again like a vast and multicoloured murmuration.

The Arctic land/seascape makes for a formidable setting and the characters’ struggle to navigate this stark and unforgiving space creates a wonderful juxtaposition with the various schemes and secrets that shape the stifling atmosphere aboard the Volunteer.

I’ll be honest, I know next to nothing about life aboard nineteenth-century whaling ships, but while The North Water‘s plot is sensationalist (as all good adventure stories ought to be), the historical details have the ring of authenticity. McGuire has clearly spent considerable time researching the grizzlier details of the whale trade.

The North Water is violent and visceral read—certainly not one for the squeamish. But for those with a taste for high-stakes adventure, intrigue and treachery, it’s one for the reading pile.


See The North Water on Goodreads and purchase through AmazonBook Depository and Kobo.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of The North Water in exchange for an honest review.

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