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The North Water

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A ship sets sail with a killer on board . . .
1859. A man joins a whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle. Having left the British Army with his reputation in tatters, Patrick Sumner has little option but to accept the position of ship's surgeon on this ill-fated voyage. But when, deep into the journey, a cabin boy is discovered brutally killed, Sumner finds himself forced to act. Soon he will face an evil even greater than he had encountered at the siege of Delhi, in the shape of Henry Drax: harpooner, murderer, monster . . .

'A tour de force' Hilary Mantel
'Riveting and darkly brilliant' Colm Tóibín

255 pages, Hardcover

First published February 11, 2016

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About the author

Ian McGuire

7 books813 followers
Ian McGuire is the author of The Abstainer published in September 2020 by Random House (USA) and Simon & Schuster (UK), The North Water published by in 2016 by Henry Holt (USA) and Simon & Schuster (UK), and Incredible Bodies published in 2007 by Bloomsbury. Ian grew up in East Yorkshire, and studied at the University of Manchester in England and the University of Virginia in the United States. He teaches creative writing and literature at The University of Manchester, where he is the co-founder of the University's Centre for New Writing. He is a winner of the Royal Society of Literature’s Encore Award and Historical Writers' Association Gold Crown Award.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,610 reviews
Profile Image for Doug H.
286 reviews
February 5, 2016

Jack London on Steroids!

This novel contains foul language, horrific gore, rape, murder, animal cruelty, and other examples of total moral bankruptcy and I absolutely loved it.

Why? How could I?

I loved it for the author’s laser-focused descriptive writing and realistic character development. I loved it for its highly suspenseful story and well-researched and seamlessly-blended historical detail. I loved it for its outward exploration of the Arctic world and for its more inward moral and psychological explorations.

I also loved it for its total lack of postmodern gimmickry. The North Water: A Novel is a shining example of contemporary literary realism. According to his Goodreads bio, Ian McGuire has a PhD from UVA where he focused on American Realism and it shows in his writing. His style is deeply influenced by the authors he studied, but feels more modern and muscular. (Think of a Jack London story on steroids.) The unremitting gore in this novel is so vividly described and the vernacular of the characters is so completely foul that it eventually becomes humorous. (Maybe darkly witty is a better description; it’s definitely not a comedy.)

I hope to forget Henry Drax some day (the most evil character I’ve come across in contemporary literature in a long time), but I doubt I’ll ever forget Patrick Sumner - the more morally complex and relatable character, the one who keeps the reader’s hope and interest afloat in a very dark and cold world.

The ending felt a bit abrupt, but that could just be because I didn’t want the story to end. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.

Five stars.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
December 6, 2019
”There is no sin left now, there is only the blood and the water and the ice; there is only life and death and the grey-green spaces in between. He will not die he tells himself, not now, not ever. When he is thirsty, he will drink his own blood; when he is hungry, he will eat his own flesh. He will grow enormous from the feasting, he will expand to fill the empty sky.”

The Yorkshire whaler named the Volunteer is on its way to the Arctic Circle to hunt for whales. While other whalers go South, they are going North. The captain has a theory that there is a pool of calm waters at the very center of the Arctic full of whales, more than enough to make a man rich.

Of course, that is all poppycock.

The Captain has to have some mad theory to justify going the wrong way during the wrong time of year. He is an unlucky captain. He has already lost a ship, so losing another will more than likely be the end of his career. Of course, as we discover, he is not mad nor unlucky, but has a mandate to make sure the ship becomes scuttled.

One has to do these things at the right time and the right place, or instead of collecting your payment, you collect an icy grave.

This isn’t the real story though. This book isn’t about the Captain or about the ship. This isn’t about defying the odds, although that does happen. This isn’t nature vs. man, though there is plenty of that. If Jack London could have written a book without any restrictions, he might have written this book. This is about two men who unknowingly are on a collision course that can only end one way.

One man embraces the dark beast of his desires. ”It is not a matter of need or pleasure, not a matter of wanting or not wanting. The thirst carries him forward, blindly, easily. Tonight he will kill, but the killing is not topmost in his mind. The thirst is much deeper than the rage. The rage is fast and sharp, but the thirst is lengthy. The rage always has an ending a blood-soaked finale, but the thirst is bottomless and without limit.”

His name is Drax.

The more he kills, the less satisfaction he receives. The pain he gives to others must be magnified for it to satisfy his cravings. He is a perfect harpooner. Killing a whale, now at least for that moment he can feel like a GOD.

”’Give me one last groan,’ he says.’That’s it, my darling. One last shudder to help me find the true place. That’s it, my sweetheart. One more inch and then we’re done.’

He leans in harder, presses, seeking out the vital organs. The lance slides in another foot. A moment later, with a final roar, the whale shoots out a plume of pure heart’s blood high into the air and tilts over lifeless onto its side with its great fin raised like a flag of surrender. The men, empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish’s steaming, expectorated gore, stand up in their flimsy boats and cheer their triumph.”

His crimes against nature and against man have no beginning or an end. He is a man at war with everything. He takes what he wants. With whores, the more pain he can give them, the more pleasure he receives. With cabin boys, they must do what he wants, or he slits their throats. He steals. He cheats. He is unbounded by any laws. His thirst is unquenchable. On the scale of humanity, he stands at the bottom...alone.

Then there is Patrick Sumner, an unlikely hero. A man addicted to laudanum. A surgeon who has recently been cashiered out of military service in India due to pilfering. He is trying to escape his past, but finds it impossible, even with the help of the opiate, to escape himself. Whalers are used to hiring men with a past; few normal men would do this work. Only desperate men with few other options will sign up to be on a ship reeking with death. Sumner is trying to become nothing, but finds he must embrace his own darkness if he has any chance of destroying Drax.

”He drops the blubber knife onto the snow and pushes both his bare hands down into the dead bear’s steaming guts. His frozen fingers feel like they might burst apart from the warmth. He grinds his teeth and pushes his hands in deeper. When the pain reduces he pulls them out, dripping with red, rubs his face and beard with the hot blood, then picks up the knife again and begins to sever and remove the bear’s innards.”

When Sumner finds himself facing death, he finds that he does have the will to do whatever it takes to survive. In that moment he is Drax. He chases this bear for hours, knowing that if he catches him and kills him, he will live. If he doesn’t, he will most assuredly perish. The chase scene for me was vintage Jack London. Man trying to overcome nature.

There are no feminists in this book. They, in fact, are suspicious of women. ”Behind every piece of sweet-smelling female loveliness lies a world of stench and doggery.” If there ever was a mother in these men’s lives, she is but a distant memory. They only know sluts and whores and women who try to cheat them out of their pay. They are brutal men who club baby seals, shoot polar bears with cubs, and kill the most magnificent creatures on earth. They do it for money. They do it for pleasure.

Ian McGuire writes an unflinching novel about these men and what they are tasked to do. The brutality is unbridled. The feralness of their needs is embraced and helps them to survive. You aren’t supposed to like them, but you can’t deny how real they are. The portraits are stark, and all of them ring true. Drax is a force of nature, completely unprincipled in his view of life, and more dangerous than any villain I’ve met in a long time. He is McGuire’s most stunning creation.

Sumner isn’t the right man to stop Drax, but in the end it turns out he is the only one who has a chance.

Recommended for the brave at heart.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for karen.
3,978 reviews170k followers
July 8, 2018
congratulations! semifinalist in goodreads' best historical fiction category 2016!

"I'd venture the Good Lord don't spend much time up here in the North Water," he says with a smile. "It's most probable he don't like the chill."

if Moby-Dick; or, The Whale had been more like this, i would have loved it. note to melville - next time, less rope & anatomy, more murder & brutality. you're a young kid, hermie, you'll get there…

this book is grit lit gone to sea, where all the staples of the genre: the violence, the desperation, the struggles of the working-class, the moral relativism; where capital-m men doing all the shit that needs doing, be it difficult or shady, are shoved into a nineteenth-century whaling boat and headed up north to the arctic circle to harpoon some whales.

and then it's just one horrible thing after another.

not only is it all the horrible things that always happen on whaling boats in the nineteenth century - where it's cold and the food sucks and it's smelly and on a good day there's the danger of sharp objects being flung around on an unstable foundation by men who are likely very drunk at a gigantic creature who does not want to have sharp objects thrown at it and will thrash about frantically, but here there's also blackmail, secret agendas, the violent sexual assault of a cabin boy, murrrrderrrrs and…henry drax.

drax is absolutely the star of this here show. he is man at his most unadorned and uncivilized, in many ways more beast than man; He grasps on to the world like a dog biting into bone - nothing is obscure to him, nothing is separate from his fierce and sullen appetites.

but although he is driven by these animal appetites and impulses, he also has a man's ability to scheme, to calculate, which makes him a most dangerous beast indeed. although he claims "I'm a doer, not a thinker, me. I follow my inclination," that in itself is a deception in the interests of self-preservation, and one which drax equates with any other animal trait: He finds the lying comes easy enough, of course. 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.

he's neither antihero nor villain, although he does some truly horrific things. he's something more elemental, primal; something predating social expectations, and so exempt from judgment on those terms: Drax's barnyard scent, dense and almost edible, dominates the room. He is like a beast at rest in its stall, Sumner thinks. A force of nature temporarily contained and pacified.

and do you know what happens to people who don't trouble themselves with human niceties or the law?

they fucking survive.

oh, and it is quite a spectacle.

this book is just a wonder. it's brutal and disgusting and contains some of the most vivid writing i have ever come across. this is not a spoiler, but it's a *very* long passage describing what happens when the whalers discover the floating carcass of a whale already starting to bloat and deciding to take what they can from it anyway, their hunt having been so unsuccessful. it's fantastic writing, and it makes whaling sound exciting, unlike that other bloated whale carcass of a book.

there are many battles here: man v man, man v nature, man v whale, man v bear, bear v airedale …

and oh my god, that baby bear. everything about that situation was so intense and heart-punching and yet another part of this book that just resonates with meaning and metaphor and life bursting at the seams.

Sumner looks down at the bear still straining at its rope end, still gasping and growling and scratching at the deck in a primitive and implacable fury.

and the TOOTH??? don't even get me started on that. in your eye, hercule poirot!

it's a nice balance between gross n' bloody action and wilderness survival story and hard-living philosophy, where drax is basically the embodiment of nietzsche (in terms of his moral philosophy, not so much in his murdery parts), in conversations where sumner plays the straight man, forced to ask all the boring and obvious questions like, "You have no conscience then?" while the shackled drax gets to deliver all the fuck, yeah lines like:

"One thing happens, then another comes after it. Why is the first thing more important than the second? Why is the second more important than the third? Tell me that."


"You please yourself, as I please myself. You accept what suits you and you reject what don't. The law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer."

and there's even a little stage-wink to nietzsche, Talking to Drax is like shouting into the blackness and expecting the blackness to answer back in kind.

there's way more to this book than drax. the dark past-having, opium-sucking ship's physician sumner gets much more stage-time, but he's just so much less fun. and that's why 4 stars instead of 5, even though it's a very high 4. it just got a little dull for me at the point where it became sumner doing his thing among the esquimaux. but then - it rallied like a mofo for an excellent ending that was SO fast-paced and satisfying, i forgave it those dull 70 pages or whatever.

fantastic book, with many thanks to the shayne-train, who has written a really fun, and much shorter, review.

tl;dr: The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge + grit-ship-lit, or, a more disgusting Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,399 reviews11.7k followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
March 17, 2017
I would call this dicklit. I reserve this identifier for pseudo-manly books, like The North Water, which pretends to be some kind of deep, tough literature, but fails to hide that its author has an almost juvenile obsession with violence, gore and bowel movements. This is not grit, this is garbage.

I am judging Hilary Mantel for blurbing this so hard right now...
Profile Image for Andrew Smith.
1,050 reviews578 followers
December 10, 2022
I’ve read plenty of crime fiction in my time, some of it graphically violent. And I’ve come across some bad men too, violent sociopaths who have occasionally haunted me long after the final page has been turned. But I’ve never before come across a book so brutal, so unmercifully unsettling and savage as this one. From practically the first page it slapped me across the face, dragged me across the room and slammed me against the wall. I loved it!

It’s 1850’s England and we are first introduced to harpooner Henry Drax who is about to board a whaling ship, the Volunteer, on its journey to the Artic. But before he walks up the gangplank he has time to brutally kill a man he’s only briefly encountered in a bar and then heartlessly beat a young boy unconscious before raping him. Yes, Drax is a man you’ll do well to avoid. Then we meet up with former army surgeon Patrick Sumner who will be acting as the ship’s medical man. At first we learn little of Patrick’s past but we do glean that he’s got a penchant for opiates. We will be fed more of his story, in flashbacks, as the novel progresses. These two are at the heart of this tale.

But there are some interesting secondary players too, and then there’s life aboard the Volunteer itself – the appalling conditions and the primitive, almost feral nature of the crew. As if this isn’t enough atmosphere in itself, McGuire also throws in the wildly inhospitable nature of the Artic weather. All of this is put together brilliantly by the the author. The language is rough – very rough – but seemed, to me at least, to be a convincing interpretation of 19th Century life amongst this group of ruffians.

The Volunteer was embarking on it’s voyage at a time when whale fishing was in a declining state, with paraffin and coal oil beginning to replace whale oil. As the voyage progresses we learn that there’s a sub-plot orchestrated by the owner of the ship, with the ship’s captain as willing accomplice, to scupper the vessel in order to claim the insurance money. How will this play out and what is to become of Drax and Sumner?

I was drawn so deeply into this story I felt like I held my breath throughout its entirety. It’s a masterful piece of work. Certainly not for anyone without the stomach for some blood and gore, but if this is no impediment and you’re up for an authentic adventure story that’ll get your blood flowing then look no further.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,194 reviews9,455 followers
June 24, 2017
Scene 1

Enter a man followed by a man

Man : Whut? Awk! (dies)

Scene 2

Enter a whale followed by several whalers

Whale : Aw shit! Ugh! No! (dies)

Scene 3

Enter a dog followed by a bear

Dog : Yah! Fuck you! Bark! (dies)

Scene 4

Enter a bear followed by a man

Bear : Aw hell, no – urghhhh! (dies)

Scene 5

Enter three men

First man : (dies)

Second man : (dies)

Scene 6

Enter an author

Ian McGuire : And that’s how you get four stars from Paul Bryant. Easy!
Profile Image for Labijose.
957 reviews414 followers
November 17, 2021
Una novela “brutal”, que me ha recordado irremediablemente a una mezcla entre “1793”, de Niklas Natt, y “El terror”, de Dean Simmons. Contiene todos los elementos que me atraen en este tipo de lecturas. Estamos en un ballenero en 1859 (escenas navales y novela histórica), en plena Groenlandia (frío, mucho frío). Y, además, hay aventura y crímenes. Si a ese cocktail le añadimos una narración trepidante, y unas descripciones que no escatiman en detalles escatológicos (condiciones higiénicas lamentables, brutalidad humana, violencia primigenia), pero ¡ojo! nada gratuitos, y unas escenas que te atrapan y se te quedan pegadas durante toda la lectura, poco más le puedo pedir para quedar plenamente satisfecho y, concederle, con todo merecimiento, mis cinco estrellas. Y más, si las hubiera.

Avisado queda el lector de que no es una lectura fácil, por el contenido que ya he mencionado. Habrá sensibilidades que no aceptarán tales descripciones. Pero los que hayan podido leer las dos novelas que refiero al principio no tendrán problema alguno para embarcarse con semejante tripulación a bordo del “Volunteer”, y disfrutar de esta joya. Eso sí, bien abrigados.
Profile Image for Matt.
917 reviews28.2k followers
July 19, 2021
“Otto crouches in the bows with the harpoon’s wooden shaft gripped tightly in his fists. With a giant horselike snort…the whale exhales a V-shaped flume of grayish vapor. The boat and crew are temporarily obscured, but when they reappear, Otto is on his feet and the harpoon is poised above his head – the barb pointing downwards and the shaft forming a black hypotenuse against the sullen sky. The whale’s back looks…like a sunken island, a grainy volcanic hump of rock peeping from the waves. Otto hurls the iron with all his strength, it sinks in deep, up to the foreganger, and the whale instantly convulses. Its body bends and spasms; the eight-foot flukes of its enormous tail break from the water, then crash back down. Otto’s boat is tossed wildly about and the oarsmen are thrown from their seats…Two more harpoons sink deep into the whale’s black flank, and then they begin with the lances…The four harpooners pierce and probe. The whale, still hopelessly resisting, blows out a plume of hot vapor mixed with blood and mucus. All around it, the smashed and bloodstained waters boil and foam…”
- Ian McGuire, The North Water

Genealogy is all the rage right now, isn’t it? Family trees and DNA and Ancestry.com. Everyone wants to know where they come from. It helps, I suppose, to define who they are. In that spirit, I decided to investigate the genesis of Ian McGuire’s familiar-seeming The North Water.

After long thought (at least three minutes, while I was waiting beneath an overpass for my train), this is what I came up with: Imagine that Melville’s Moby Dick married London’s The Sea-Wolf, and they had a child together. Then imagine that child was orphaned, and raised by James Dickey. Every once in awhile, Dickey would allow an abusive uncle named Cormac McCarthy to watch the child. Meanwhile, the ghost of the Greek poet Homer floats above.

That’s how we get here. That child’s name is The North Water.

This is a short, brutal novel about men on a whaling ship. How brutal, you ask? Well, within the first nine pages, one of the major characters kills a man, kills a child, and then rapes the dead child. So, if that gives you pause, you will probably want to leave this one alone.

For those that push forward, it only gets bleaker.

McGuire’s novel, as I heavily intimated in the lede, uses a hoary framework to explore the base and primitive nature of man. It pits two opposites against each other. The first is Henry Drax, a brutish psychopath whose bloody introduction constitutes the beginning of The North Water. The second is the Irish surgeon Patrick Sumner, a refugee from the Sepoy Mutiny with a troubled pass that nevertheless fails to obscure his fundamental humanism.

Drax and Sumner end up on the Volunteer, which is heading for the Arctic circa 1859 for a last hurrah killing whales. In the dark, foul-smelling confines of the ship, a coarse morality play unfolds.

That’s really all I’ll say, plot-wise. The end-result, in my opinion, is not entirely surprising, and the narrative arcs felt foreordained, but there are some decent twists and turns along the way.

The North Water came on scene in 2016 riding the crest of a great deal of critical acclaim. In terms of writing, the praise is well deserved. McGuire is a very talented. His descriptions are excellent without being impenetrable. He can turn a phrase, such as when a character “runs his tongue along the haphazard ramparts of his teeth,” or a description of the Arctic, where “enormous blue-white icebergs loom like broken and carious monuments.” His landscapes can be breathtaking, painterly: “The black sky is dense with stars and upon its speckled blank, the borealis unfurls, bends back, reopens again like a vast and multi-colored murmuration.” There is a real tactility to the prose, putting you inside the story, whether it is a dimly lit grog-shop, the ranking berths of a whaling ship, or on the vast, wind-whipped ice-fields of the far north. The only downside to these marvelous evocations is that McGuire only takes you to terrible places, peopled by consistently nasty characters.

The bookshelves of the world are filled with novels that make a study out of hyper-masculinity. (Aside from prostitutes, there are few women in sight). And that’s really what this is: a book about what it means to be a man. On that level, The North Water only treads water. Drax is such a villainous creation that it’s hard to take him seriously. There is no balance to the competing worldviews of Drax and Sumner, because one man is a monster and the other is not (it’s interesting to compare this to the richer philosophical tête-à-tête between Hump van Weyden and Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf). Moreover, McGuire’s sermonizing is a bit too on the nose. In general, the dialogue is terse, crude, often quite funny; but when the fellows start gushing about their spiritual leanings and worldviews, all subtlety is lost.

The North Water could have been a pulpy period thriller up-jumped by a unique setting. Or it could have been a knottier disquisition on how many layers of humanity must be shed before one can find the soul. Instead of choosing, though, McGuire decides to mix these components together. (Or, in true The North Water fashion, you might say these components were clubbed like a baby seal, and ground into powder, before being stirred into grog that’s been in a rotting barrel for a year). So you get something that feels like literary fiction, evolved from a salon, jutting up against the macabre and sadistic, evolved from the gutter.

The result is pretty satisfying. Certainly, in terms of quality, it is better than average. Still, with material this grim (remember those first nine pages I told you about) and characters this hateful, it is real hard to love.
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,642 reviews5,092 followers
March 13, 2017
grueling misadventures on a 19th century whaling ship.

well I suppose I have to admire how sustained the effort is. Ian McGuire is relentlessly focused on the visceral, that's for certain "...they drip not blood, as usual, but some foul straw-colored coagulation like the unspeakable rectal oozings of a human corpse..." yeah that phrase pretty much sums up the novel. the author wants to repel the reader. very little depth and zero resonance but a whole lot of brutality, atrocity, and scenes that revel in human and animal suffering. plus a wish fulfillment ending that felt tailor-made for an eventual movie adaptation. it all felt so cheap and small.

characterization is flat; protagonist is uninteresting and his supposedly tragic backstory is rote; prose is proficient and vivid but also somehow monotonous. I expected either a grim psychological study or a stark conflict between flawed humanity and fathomless evil, however this dank and shallow novel is neither. I hoped for at least a wee bit of The Terror's absorbing atmosphere and deep characterization, or a sliver of its transcendence. none of those things were to be found. the book was written by an adult but has a very juvenile desire to disgust and appall. I think it is easy to show how dark things can be but I need to feel like the author is trying to say more than "things can get really fucking dark." and if you can't reach for meaning, at least try to entertain rather than punish me. overall this was highly unpleasant to read and ended up feeling like a real waste of time.

Profile Image for Robin.
484 reviews2,615 followers
January 4, 2018
Ungodly stenches, thick bloody discharges, sluicey shits dropped from the sides of boats, ursine gore, carnage of baby seals, rape, more than you could ever imagine knowing about blubber, murder.

Just a few of the things you can expect to read about in this no-holds-barred Victorian adventure on a whaling ship. Sounds good, right?

It is. Really, really good.

Long-listed for the 2016 Booker Prize, I feel the same delight in its nomination that I did for His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae, because both these books are a bit different from the usual earnest, literary Booker fare. You know me, I lap up said earnestness like a cube of delicious, freshly harvested whale blubber, but it's nice sometimes to see something different.

This book is a fast paced adventure, complete with one of the most morally bankrupt bad guys I've read of late, pitted against a strangely relatable opium junkie. While the story propels you forward relentlessly against the dangerous icy waters of the Arctic Circle, the superb writing satisfies the appetite for quality of prose, tension, character development, and descriptions of the fetid underbelly found on and off the whaling ship. It has a level of depth achieved through prophetic dreams, spiritual characters, and the ever present threat of death. But, at the end of the day, it's all about the story.

Man fights man as much as man fights the elements in this book. These men are tough, and McGuire depicts with vividness the vile, brutish conditions they endured, to make a living.

What a ride! Not for the faint of heart.
Profile Image for Katie.
268 reviews334 followers
January 30, 2018
The North Water takes us into a coarse masculine world where all the better qualities of humanity are hard to find. Sumner, a disgraced surgeon, is constrained to find employment on a whaling ship at a time when the need for whale oil is declining. There’s immediately something suspicious about the real task the owner of The Volunteer has set its captain. The crew of the ship are a motley rabble of ruthless and desperate men. Sumner, the surgeon, is an innocent by comparison. He’s addicted to laudanum and reads Homer. His nemesis is a man called Henry Drax who in the first chapter is shown beating unconscious and raping a young boy. More about him later.

Early on, there’s a recurring motif – if a child or an innocent creature appears you know it’s going to meet a nasty end. I found he used this tactic one time too many and it became overly predictable. The first chapter especially began to seem heavy handed, a rather cheap ploy to create tension. There’s later a scene where baby seals are clubbed to death which, though hard to read, did effectively show how brutalised these men had become and set the atmosphere in which these men lived. They live in a world where blood, pus, excrement, bile are the visuals of everyday. Civilisation’s pretty facades have all been worn thin to reveal the stinking liquid fundament of life. Once the voyage is underway the descriptive writing is brilliant, especially of the merciless arctic landscapes. Pretty soon it acquires the fast-paced momentum of a thriller.

The weakest link of the novel for me was Henry Drax, the epitome of pure evil who never quite convinced me as anything but a convenient and rather unsophisticated plot device. The arctic setting, so brilliantly evoked, provided the novel’s moral vacuum much better than Drax did. This is a world where life is cheap and motive rudimentary. The duplicitous plan of the owner provided the tension. Drax, on the other hand, was close to cartoon baddie. He belongs in a novel by a lesser writer. But I’m still giving it five stars for how vividly it dramatized its landscapes and how excitingly it swept along.
Profile Image for LA Cantrell.
424 reviews544 followers
December 28, 2017
Quick. Name the baddest bad guy you've ever read. Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist? Javer from Les Miserables? Hannibal Lecter? Serena Pemberton? Cathy Ames? Cormac McCarthy's Judge Holden or Anton Chigurh?

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce a new boy to the club of horror. "... and something else, something wholly different, has appeared instead. This courtyard has become a place of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations, and Henry Drax is its wild, unholy engineer."

While blurbs will tell you this is a story that takes place aboard a whaling ship in the late 1800s, nothing can quite prepare us for the key words in the above quotation: vile, blood-soaked, unholy, Drax. Let me reiterate the term blood-soaked.

Yes, as a reader, it's going to cost you. Just the tail end of the first little chapter will have you wincing and percolating anger toward Henry Drax. The next five chapters introduce abundant blood from seals, bears, sailors, and of course whales. While we are calibrating the Offense Meter, you need to know that while I've read lots of novels where F bombs were dropped like they were D-Day ordnance or something, I've never heard the C-word used so frequently. I eventually became entirely immune to it and feared I'd see some idiot driver on the road in front of me and mutter *c@#t* in front of my kids or something. o_O

Having skimmed this review, probably a good 80% of you now have no desire to take a look at this Man Booker nominee. But let me share with the other 20% how excellent it is! This is at heart a story about good and evil, adventure, dire conditions, and fortitude. While the description of field-dressing seals isn't going to give us practical life skills, the barbarity of these actions puts us firmly on the ice pack freezing our butts off. The author grabs us by our white collars and off our cozy sofas and directly into the late 1800s and the frigid north water. The suspense and cold and isolation are as much characters in the tale as anyone else, and it is no surprise to learn that the author is a professor of literary realism. Now, all the fabulous professional reviews out there are pointing out the parallels with Moby Dick (hello, Captain Obvious), but here is a fantastic little Easter Egg most missed and that ties to author McGuire's taste in reading.

His sociopath in this story, Henry Drax, has sailed to the Marquesas in the past we are told. We further learn Drax was aboard the ship called Dolly, and his fellow harpooners tease him by faux-accusing him of cannibalism (not that he would be above cannibalism). While Herman Melville is most widely known for Moby Dick, his earlier book Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life has a character who sails aboard the fictional craft Dolly and ends up living amongst cannibals. What an homage! This little tidbit and other sprinkles of dark humor were merely the tip of the iceberg in my enjoyment.

We also find some calm mysticism on shipboard, comparisons between Eskimeaux gods and doctors, disbelief in environmental fragility, and the evil nature of profiteers. There are themes examined in here that fit the 1800s perfectly but are echoed today as well.

Patrick Sumner, a surgeon wounded in the Siege of Delhi, is the quiet hero of the story, an imperfect man who cannot forgive himself for his failings. His boyhood experiences give him a soft spot for children, and while he tries to help those in peril, fate steps in to take control. When he eventually discovers what a monster Henry Drax is, he cannot get away from him. Trapped on a whaling ship in the middle of nowhere, packed in by polar ice, escape will have to come in a different form. Justice is even more unlikely.

While the first 50 or 60 pages (five or six chapters) were bloody hell to get through, from that point forward, I could not put this story down. I usually like my villains to show a touch of humanity here or there to make them more real, but instead Drax's failings were able to conjure believability for me by the story's conclusion.

As for the ultimate close to the book, it felt a bit abrupt for my liking. So much so that while this was a solid five star read, the last half chapter fell short of the meteoric reading experience that led up to it. Overall, 4.5 icy stars for the Irish surgeon Sumner who kept me there with him to the top of the world and back.
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,430 reviews810 followers
December 6, 2020
“God knows that is what he needs after the madness of India: the filthy heat, the barbarity, the stench. Whatever the Greenland whaling is like, he thinks, it will surely not be anything like that.”

Yes. Well. Patrick Sumner was mistaken. This is not for anyone looking for an adventurous sailing holiday. This is more of a brutal undertaking.

Whaling in the north water is not for the faint-hearted. Sumner is an Irish surgeon who has come from the Indian Rebellion of 1857, where he operated and amputated in appalling conditions. He’s been told that the surgeon on a whaling ship is just a legal requirement. They have to have one, but there’s little to do.

“His mind moves to the northern ice fields and the great wonders he will no doubt see there—the unicorn and sea leopard, the walrus and the albatross, the Arctic petrel and the polar bear. He thinks about the great right whales lying bunched in pods like leaden storm clouds beneath the silent sheets of ice. He will make charcoal sketches of them all, he decides, paint watercolour landscapes, keep a journal possibly. And why not? He will have plenty of time on his hands, Brownlee made that plain enough. He will read widely (he has brought his dog-eared Homer), he will practise his disused Greek.”

Yes, he will see some wonders, especially whales and bears. But this is a voyage like no other. Whales are fast disappearing, the captain keeps pushing further and further north, past where other ships are working and for no apparent reason. Some of the crew argue that the whales are moving south.

Some of the men are decent sorts, but Drax! Drax, the harpooner who has no innate sense of anything other than his animal appetites, is another creature entirely.

‘You please yourself, as I please myself. You accept what suits you and you reject what don’t. The law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer.’

Drax opens the book, although he’s referred to only as the Shetlander. The language is rough, salty, vile, and appropriate. He is what he is. The author has painted him in all his putrid glory, and when they finally get to the actual whaling, it’s easy to see how he keeps being signed on. He is an expert harpoonist – quick, accurate, risk-taking. Awful and awesome. Awful in the original sense of the word, but also in today’s sense.

Captain Brownlee knows Drax, and that he needs him, but he complains to Baxter, who has been hiring the crew, about Cavendish.

‘It’s a poor move to make him first mate. They all know him as a worthless c**t.’

‘Cavendish is a great turd and a whoremonger, it’s true, but he will do whatever he’s told to. And when you get to the North Water the very last thing you want is some bastard showing initiative.’

The voyage, the intrigue, the drugs, the plots, the murder, the whale boats, the stranding on ice floes, the blood, the violence, the seals, the bears. And the overwhelming stink above all! I found it absolutely gripping stuff.

When I was a girl in the landlocked American Midwest, I loved some of the old sailing books in my father’s library. I remember Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor's Life at Sea, but I’ve forgotten the names of others. I did not love Moby-Dick or, the Whale, which I struggled through at 16 (when I’m sure I was distracted with other interests), and I have no intention of going back to reread any of these. My interest was piqued, and I have vivid memories of sailing around the horn in a gale.

I knew this was grim and grisly, something I usually avoid in mysteries, but I also knew that it was the nature of whaling and the times. Plus, I remembered seeing the Australian ABC’s Book Club episode where all the readers loved it (which almost never happened) as did their guests that week, Michael Robotham and Benjamin Law. That tipped me over the edge (into the icy waters, if I want to be silly about it). Plus, I read Cormac McCarthy, so I was sort of prepared.

I’ve since read Jason Steger’s review in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2017, where he talked about the author and how he came to write the book, which is interesting in itself -I’ll add the link.

“What he came up with is a novel bursting with life even as it is jammed full of murder, gore and stench; a novel that brings darkness and the scarlet of blood to the white of the ice and snow.”

I will add that there is a moral in here about how businesses deal with the decline of demand for a product, as well. We speak a lot today in Australia about expanding gas exploration at the risk of developing what will become stranded assets. Whaling was facing similar problems, and I doubt any of us are sorry to see those days gone.

The author’s descriptive language is not limited to gore and whale blubber. The landscape and the weather are almost unbelievable. Imagine watching this coming.

“Through a stuttering veil of snow, he sees at the floe edge a bluish iceberg, immense, chimneyed, wind-gouged, sliding eastwards like an albinistic butte unmoored from the desert floor. The berg is moving at a brisk walking pace and as it moves, its nearest edge grinds against the floe and spits up house-sized rafts of ice, like swarf from the jaws of a lathe.”

Terrifying stuff and I loved it all.

Here's the link to Jason Steger's review which included a lot of background on how the author came to write it.
Profile Image for William2.
745 reviews2,959 followers
January 5, 2020
Darkness, darkness. In the early 1860s a whaling expedition is undertaken from Hull, Yorkshire, at a time when the demand for whale oil has fallen due to a new discovery, fossil oil. The voyage is doomed from the start since the ship must go down in order for the avaricious shipowners to collect the insurance money. The vessel is crewed, among others, by a homicidal maniac incapable of remorse, and a ship's surgeon, just cashiered from the British Army after the Indian Mutiny, who's a laudanum junky. The way in which the killer is caught will set your hair on fire. I'll say no more. Not a tale for the squeamish or faint of heart. Martin Amis once said that the thrillers of Elmore Leonard were re-readable, meaning exquisitely made. The same goes for The North Water. Author Ian McGuire knows his Herman Melville intimately. The North Water reads like a present day revisiting of several books, including Moby-Dick of course, but also White-Jacket, Redburn and The Piazza Tales, which includes "Billy Budd." The base human drives Melville could only fleetingly allude to are here in full view. In that sense, I think the novel is in some ways a pendent to Melville's oeuvre, while still possessing a verve and originality which sets it apart from the master's models. In the second half, in my view, McGuire shifts or rather broadens his influences—for this is an imaginative book wrought from other books—to include Robert Falcon Scott's doomed antarctic voyage as told by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World. Perhaps some of the misfortunes of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton are thrown in there, too. Beryl Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys also springs to mind. And the shipowner's long valedictory patter reminds me of the father's speech in the middle of John le Carré's wonderful A Perfect Spy.
Profile Image for Agnieszka.
258 reviews924 followers
March 28, 2018

A very good reading. Gripping and engrossing even if at most times truly gruesome. I know some readers were whining on mega-literality in characterising people and their deeds, couldn't stomach scatological descriptions and direly vulgar language, well, the proverb to swear as a sailor didn’t come out of nowhere, I suppose, found some protagonists exaggerated, cartoonish and grotesque even and filthiness and all this mindless brutality just put them off. I can see their point. Really. But it doesn’t change the fact I found The North Water well written and well paced story.

Yes, there are some expressively rendered protagonists, there is a foul language and whole obscenity imaginable, there is blood, guts and body fluids, there are scents and views that could upset your stomach, there is a ship though its true mission in the course of events is to show rather opposite than most of participants of the voyage were in the first place informed of, there is a whalehunting, and bears, there are rapes and murders and violence, there is cold and ice, and darkness. And even more darkness. Yes, The North Water has it all, but if the novel dealt with evil and brutalization and barbarism such an approach and language was in my eyes justified. You may of course disagree with me.

Some words about main protagonists. Harpooner Drax is a nasty piece of work indeed, amoral, despicable and so depraved that it feels almost unreal, it’s barely a spoiler, we meet the guy and get to know his face just on first pages. He seems to embody some primary force and instinct, he’s pure evil but his cruelty doesn’t spring from thoughtlessness, he definitely is a cunning and manipulative miscreant. For his opponent is designated doctor Patrick Sumner, a bit shadowy figure, who emerged out of nowhere, from India to tell the truth, and who likes to spend his leisure time in laudanum-induced daze. What is he running from ? What does he want to forget about? Against sinister personality and strength of Drax our Doc seems to compare not that commandingly. Sometimes I thought the first one was too diabolique to take him seriously while the second one remained too undeveloped character. From other heroes I'd like to mention yet harpooner Otto, a huge man fascinated with Swedenborg's mysticism and through its lens trying to grasp nature of good and evil and things that happened to hapless sailors through their doomed voyage.

One of the most recognisable villains in literature ever remains to me judge Holden from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. I thought this novel was stunning and brilliant and stark and absolutely unforgettable reading experience. I’m not saying McGuire with his reading is in the same league only that the level of bestiality and depravity seems to be quite comparable. It’s a bit like one of McCarthy’s characters enlisted on that whaler. Both authors seem to think of ruthlessness and cruelty to be immanent attribute of human nature, directed not only at fellow human being but discernible in its approach to animals and nature as well.

I’m attracted to novels that are set in extremely conditions, that test people’s endurance and fortitude or just the opposite that explore man’s meanness in the hour of trial. I love reading about polar expeditions, mountain climbing or ill-fated voyages. And this novel appeared to perform the conditions pretty successfull even though in the last part it seemed to lose some of it initial panache. But if you prefer to avoid in your readings very graphic scenes of violence and abuse this one may not be very suitable for you.

Profile Image for Ɗẳɳ  2.☊.
159 reviews292 followers
June 7, 2017
Now this, this is the adventure I’ve been looking for! I couldn’t help but notice several reviewers comparing this to a Jack London tale, and it’s hard for me not to follow suit. As a kid, I was a big fan of Mr. London. I especially loved his Alaskan adventures, which opened my eyes to a place so remote and far removed from my everyday life experiences that it made my head spin. I longed to set a course into that uncharted wilderness. Those books filled me with a wanderlust which still consumes me today. Someday I may hit the road and never look back. This book, however, isn’t one for the kiddies. This is a would-be Jack London at full tilt. This is a no holds barred, savage tale of man vs. nature, man vs. beast, and ultimately man vs. man.

Our story is set in the nineteenth century, at the tail end of whaling’s heyday. “We killed them all . . . It was tremendous while it lasted, and magnificently profitable too. We had twenty-five fucking good years. But the world turns, and . . . Besides, no one even wants the whale oil anymore—it’s all petroleum now, all coal gas, you know that.”

We follow a disgraced army surgeon court-martialed and on the lam. He's on the lookout for a way out of the country, so it’s no surprise that he’d jump at a position on a whaling vessel helmed by an infamous captain with a sketchy past. Plus, he figures it’ll be kind of holiday. His employer implied as much anyway. “Implied that the surgeon’s job on a whaler was a legal nicety, a requirement to be met, but in practice there was bugger all to do . . . God knows that is what he needs after the madness of India: the filthy heat, the barbarity, the stench. Whatever the Greenland whaling is like, he thinks, it will surely not be anything like that.” <--Famous last words.

Little does he realize that the captain has a hidden agenda, or that one of the crew members is an unrepentant psychopath, with a complete lack of conscience. Sorry buddy, but I don’t think you’re in for a relaxing holiday!

Look, I know that subject of whaling may be entirely off-putting to a lot of you out there, so let me assure you that there’s much more to the story than that. Truthfully, whaling plays only a minor role. I would say the same for those gruesome animal encounters. I won’t lie to you and suggest that they’re not horrific, because a few of them are. But, I will say that I didn’t feel like McGuire embellished those scenes simply to up the gore factor. They seem completely accurate to the era in which this story occurs.

The period accurate language and attention to fine detail gave the novel a real sense of time and place. The author clearly put in the research, and it shows.

This story, for me, helped to alleviate some of that bitter disappointed I experience last Christmas, while watching both DiCaprio’s and Tarantino’s failed attempt at portraying an epic winter adventure. This razor-sharp narrative easily flenses both of those bloated carcasses.

Those of you who know me, know that I’m fairly stingy with my five star ratings. In fact, of the forty some odd books that I've read this year (and believe you me I've read some doozies), I can count on one hand the number of five star ratings I’ve issued. So I think it’s safe to say that this one, in my opinion, was pert-near perfect.

A daring adventure of alpha males (sorry, but there’s nary a woman in sight) struggling against Mother Nature and each other, with a villain so evil that he’s sure to resonate in the reader's mind long after setting this one aside. A tale which, at times, could be oh so brutal, yet strikingly beautiful, or, as my friend Shayne would say, it was, in a word, “BRUTIFUL™.”
Profile Image for Beverly.
805 reviews290 followers
May 9, 2018
My kind of adventure, man against man, under brutal conditions, The North Water had me in its teeth from beginning to end. The psychopath and pedophile Drax against the civilized and down -on-his-luck surgeon Summer are shipping out on a whaler to the Arctic. Each are on the ill-fated ship for similar reasons--it's the last resort for both. To get away from society is their desire, but their likeness ends there, for Drax is a bloodthirsty killer and Sumner only wants to earn cash in his chosen profession, as his military career is no longer an option. It seems as if their meeting is fated to be and only one will live through it.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Mª Carmen.
582 reviews
December 22, 2022
Tremendo y brutal. Crudo, duro, hediondo, áspero, violento, primitivo y me ha encantado. No me suelen gustar los libros ambientados en barcos, pero este me enganchó prácticamente desde el principio. No toda la trama transcurre en el ballenero, sin embargo, esa es la mejor parte.

Creo que la sinopsis puede conducir a error. No estamos ante una novela negra, sino más bien ante una novela de aventuras con tintes de negra. El lector va a saber desde la primera página quién es "el sangriento asesino". La trama no va de investigar y descubrirlo. Es más bien un relato de la dureza de la vida en un ballenero, de la supervivencia en situaciones límites, de la codicia y de la naturaleza hostil y despiadada.

Ya sea en el ballenero, en las tierras árticas o en el Londres victoriano, la ambientación es soberbia. Fruto de una documentación impecable, tan bien introducida que ni la notas. Pese a lo poco que me gusta el tema, me sorprendí a mi misma bebiéndome las escenas de la caza de la ballena o de la supervivencia en el Ártico.

Los personajes brutales. Henry Drax (más hediondo imposible), tan bien trazado que hasta se le huele. Cavendish que quiere progresar a costa de lo que sea, Baxter, el empresario sin escrúpulos y un capitán de torcidas intenciones. Sin olvidarnos de Black o de Otto. Grandes personajes, excepcionalmente dibujados por la pluma del autor. Y en primer plano, brillando con luz propia, Sumner, el médico, el auténtico protagonista, el personaje más polifacético y el que más evoluciona.

Un apunte sobre las distintas formas de maldad que aparecen en el libro. Tenemos la maldad primitiva, reptiliana, del asesino, pero también las derivadas de la codicia e incluso del miedo.

El final perfecto.

En conclusión, una novela que me ha sorprendido y gustado mucho. Seguiré atentamente al autor.

¿Recomendable? Sí, aunque ojo los estómagos tiernos, esta novela es para tenerlo blindado.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,049 followers
September 14, 2016
I started this because it was named to the Man Booker Prize longlist in 2016, and I was hearing good things about it from some of my reading friends. Despite not being named to the short list, I decided it was worth finishing.

I feel two ways about this novel. On the one hand, there is some very violent stuff in this book. Rape and murder and guiltless violence all around. There are frequent derogatory words directed at other races and women. But on the other hand (and forgive me but there really is another hand here!) the writing is stellar. Specific, descriptive, captivating writing that pulls you in immediately, into this gritty godless world of mid 19th century whalers and seamen. Compared to the other gritty disturbing unlikeable book that made the shortlist, Eileen, I felt this was stronger on all accounts - the unlikeable characters seem to be a product of their environment, the story has momentum to it, and everything comes to a close. There isn't an idealistic thread in the entire thing, unlike certain books about whaling and seamen written by authors living during that actual time period. Life is hard, people are faulty, and nobody even agrees on the good of humanity.

I'm not sure I'd recommend it to every reader. But to be transported to a world of outlaws at sea, this is the place.
Profile Image for Michael.
Author 2 books1,340 followers
January 3, 2018
A deep, dark, unflinching, and unsparing account of men battling the elements, each other, and, for the most part, themselves. The character of Drax was the most non-cartoonishly evil character I'd encountered in a long time. But of course this only made me wonder: is that even possible? Isn't such a pure distillation of evil necessarily cartoonish? I wondered several times this as I read--whether every awful thing he did was meant merely to shock--but in the end the story carried me along its strong, swift currents that gathered power as I went.

This is a brutal world, described brilliantly, but it's not for the faint of heart!
Profile Image for Glenn Sumi.
404 reviews1,529 followers
December 31, 2017

Every year I come across a book or two that I want to press on EVERY reader I know. This, after just a few salty pages, quickly became one of them. Keep in mind: if savage language and limb-tearing action makes you queasy, it might not be for you. Furthermore, try to read this in the winter. I bet your chilly, slushy commute ain’t got nothing on what the characters in this book endure.

The North Water is about a doomed expedition heading up to the Arctic Circle. It’s the 1850s, and the whaling industry is dying, whale oil having being replaced in general use by different kinds of fuel.

Nevertheless, the ship Volunteer is heading up from England to the icy north. Onboard are a couple dozen men, each with complex histories. These include the captain, Brownlee, whose previous whaling trip ended in financial disaster; harpooner Drax, a sadistic, murdering, amoral brute whom we meet (boy, do we ever meet him) in the first pages; and Sumner, the ship’s educated Irish doctor, who once had a promising career in the army but is now, thanks to an unfortunate incident in India, looking for any kind of work to support his opium addiction.

In 250 efficient, evocative pages, Ian McGuire takes us on this unforgettable trip, making us see, smell, taste and hear the perilous journey. He has absolute mastery over the tale; the language feels authentic, the plot moves swiftly, and the characters interact in a way that never feels contrived.

It’s an adventure, a murder mystery, a historical snapshot and a cultural eye-opener. The passages involving the Eskimos the seamen meet are fascinating, and there’s a sensitive subplot involving a simple whaler who is ostracized for being homosexual (I suppose the word “gay” wouldn’t apply to him then).

If I have one criticism, it’s that the inevitable stand-off between the two main characters, when it comes, happens too quickly. Surely McGuire could have extended it.

But how often do we want sections to keep going longer, so we can savour the details? That’s how damn great this book is.
Profile Image for PirateSteve.
90 reviews330 followers
November 16, 2017
""I'd venture the Good Lord don't spend much time up here in the North Water," he says with a smile. "It's most probable he don't like the chill""
Profile Image for Char.
1,634 reviews1,487 followers
June 29, 2017
The North Water is a savage, harsh, gory, dark fiction story taking place mainly on a whaling vessel in the 19th century. Ever moving north in search of the dwindling whale population, the realities of life are hard enough for these men, never mind the serial killer/child molester hiding among them.

I listened to this on audio and the narrator John Keating was most excellent. I would love to hear more of his work in the future.

I enjoyed the hell out of this brutal story, but it's not for everyone. Be aware that Mr. McGuire takes an unflinching look at the whaling life- and it was very, very unpleasant for nearly every character in the book. If you're okay with that type of thing, then I highly recommend The North Water

*I was able to listen to this one on audio thanks to my awesome public library. *
Profile Image for Susan.
2,638 reviews598 followers
January 24, 2016
It is 1857 and a whaling ship is about to leave for the Artic. With Mr Baxter as the wily financier funding the expedition and an assembled crew which includes Captain Brownlee, perceived as ‘unlucky’ by the men, Dr Patrick Sumner, an Irish surgeon with secrets and, oh yes, a vicious murderer called Henry Drax.

This is a dark and unsettling novel. The outline of the story may make it seem like a murder mystery, but this is far more literary fiction than a thriller. The writing is violent and unflinching from the beginning with insurance fraud, sodomy, abuse, survival in a desolate environment and some pretty gruesome scenes within the pages.

The characters are what make the book work; with Sumner, the disgraced surgeon, as the most sympathetic. There are flashbacks of his time in the army during the Indian Mutiny and we learn of how he ended up taking part on board a whaling expedition. Henry Drax is a far less complicated character and it is his sheer nastiness that drives the story. His presence looms over the ship and casts a long shadow over a dark book indeed.

Brooding, dark and violent, this novel will undoubtedly not appeal to everyone. However, if you are prepared to enter this dark, realistic account of a whaling ship with a killer on board, you will be unable to put it down. A book, and characters, which will stay with me for a long time. Lastly, I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,652 followers
September 19, 2021
I love an old-fashioned survival story. I also enjoy a classic tale of good vs. evil. But maybe most of all, I love to read about an adventure set in a far-off land.

"The North Water" has all of those things. I had heard this novel being praised when it first came out, but I didn't get around to finally reading it until after I watched the mini-series, starring the well-cast Colin Farrell as Drax, a drunken brute who happens to be skilled at harpooning whales.*

"North Water" follows the crew of a whaling ship in the 1850s**, with our protagonist being Patrick Sumner, a former army surgeon hoping to start a new life. The reader knows early on that Patrick has signed on to a doomed voyage, and it was a compelling story to follow, which I won't spoil here. I raced through this audiobook, which was marvelously performed by John Keating, and would highly recommend this thoughtful and thrilling novel.

*Note 1: One of my hobbies is reading the source material of an adapted work and comparing the two versions. One change that worked well for the mini-series is that a violent incident that takes place very early in the book was omitted, which created more mystery in the TV show about how a cabin boy ended up dead. In the book, the murderer is clearly identified, but the mini-series did a nice job of creating more mystery and suspicion. I'd also highly recommend the mini-series.

**Note 2: I had previously read "In the Heart of the Sea" and later saw the adapted movie, which is also about a doomed whaling ship in the 1800s. So obviously now I'm a total expert in 19th century whaling techniques — am available for interviews.

Favorite Quotes
[Drax is being questioned about his actions - best spoken with a Colin Farrell accent]
"A man don't always think on the benefits ... I do as I must. Int [sic] a great deal of cogitation involved."

[Drax and Sumner conversation]
"Oh, I don't intend too much. I'm a doer, not a thinker, me. I follow my inclination."
"You have no conscience then?"
"One thing happens, then another comes after it. Why is the first thing more important than the second?"
Profile Image for LolaF.
386 reviews215 followers
November 24, 2021
Un libro duro, frío, áspero e inhóspito como las tierras del norte. Turbio, negro, depravado y violento como los actos que describe. Una historia de muerte y supervivencia no apta para todos los públicos.

He aquí un hombre que tras un tropiezo busca una nueva oportunidad de rehacer su vida y por un miserable sueldo se enrola en un ballenero rumbo a las aguas del Norte. Patrick Sumner es un hombre atormentado por unos remordimientos que trata de calmar con una cierta adicción, que esperaba tener un viaje tranquilo a bordo del Volunteer. Pero como podéis imaginar, el barco no llega a buen puerto y nuestro amigo se embarca en una aventura por las tierras del Ártico. Hambre, violencia y frío sacuden a estos hombres en un "sálvese quien pueda".

Buena recreación del ambiente pútrido y marginal del puerto de Yorkshire, de las condiciones de vida en el barco y de la caza de ballenas. Contraste con los valores y la forma de vida de las comunidades indígenas.

Un libro corto, que a pesar de su crudeza o tal vez por ella, te atrapa. No puedes dejar de leer.

No es lo que me esperaba según la sinopsis, dado que Henry Drax tiene un papel importante en los hechos, pero el protagonista indiscutible es Patrick Sumner. Por si alguien tiene alguna duda, aunque se mencione a un sangriento asesino, tampoco es un thriller, lo calificaría de narrativa, aventuras, con cierto punto de misterio. En cualquier caso, es una de esas duras historias que puedes llegar a recordar con el tiempo.

Valoración: 9/10
Lectura: noviembre 2021
Profile Image for Tom Mathews.
661 reviews
September 2, 2016
I’m not overly squeamish. In the last couple years I have read Blood Meridian, reputedly Cormac McCarthy’s bloodiest work, and The Ruins, by Scott Smith, another notoriously sanguineous selection. But it wasn’t until I was reading this book that I realized that I needed a bookshelf for books that are ‘not for the fainthearted’.

The North Water reads like Jack London on crack. It is an extremely visceral story of the final days of the whaling boom when, in order to hunt the ever dwindling herds of whales, ships would sail ever farther north, in seas with more ice than water. A single error in judgement could leave a ship stranded in the ice for months, or even years. In this setting we meet Henry Drax, a harpooner as harsh and violent as the name he bears, and Patrick Sumner, a former British Army surgeon whose avarice cost him his commission and any hopes of a respectable medical career.

Ian McGuire’s debut novel skillfully pits these two men against each other in a bleak and bitter landscape where there is truly no escape from the evil they encounter. He is an author who bears watching.
★ ★ ★ ★ ½ stars

FYI: On a 5-point scale I assign stars based on my assessment of what the book needs in the way of improvements:
*5 Stars – Nothing at all. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
*4 Stars – It could stand for a few tweaks here and there but it’s pretty good as it is.
*3 Stars – A solid C grade. Some serious rewriting would be needed in order for this book to be considered great or memorable.
*2 Stars – This book needs a lot of work. A good start would be to change the plot, the character development, the writing style and the ending.
*1 Star - The only thing that would improve this book is a good bonfire.
Profile Image for Julie.
553 reviews276 followers
October 12, 2016
Other than the fact that someone seems to have had some potty-training issues as a toddler, this book was pretty good. I'm employing only the mildest irony.

I say that because this book is filled with the stench of mid-19th century aromas from the privy, for the most part. McGuire really likes to indulge in the smells of a more malodorous age, packing the book with instances, on just about every page, with some mention of smells of urine and faeces and beer-laden farts. It's really a teen boy's locker room of sour and stinking descriptions and it does get very old very fast. Yes, we do all understand it was a "dirtier" age, and particularly so on long sea voyages, but the moments of explosive diarrhea far outnumber the whales and seals -- and so it's little wonder that it was an ill-fated voyage.

The novel seems quite derivative -- bringing to mind Herman Melville and Jack London: ill-fated whaling ships, doomed to sink; and nasty characters who know nothing other than to be nasty. In both instances, McGuire doesn't quite reach the master story tellers' skills: Moby Dick is a much better tale and Wolf Larsen makes Henry Drax look like a knitting granny in a rocking chair.

While some reviewers claim to have never seen such a monstrous villain as Drax, I raise an improbable eyebrow. Really? He's just a garden variety sociopath with not much to him -- absolutely no complexity or abstruseness: he's just a big bully. There is nothing surprising about his actions or motivations. (Much more complex and evil characters have been delivered on the television series Dexter ... or even Law and Order: SVU or Law & Order: Criminal Intent. )

It's really a mish-mash of plots and characters from various novels; herein we even find Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of The Four slightly tarted up, but very recognizable.

To steal one of McGuire's own expressions: it's truly a gallimaufry of a novel!

And therein lies the rub, as the saying goes ...

For all of the other ailments this book possesses, it is lifted up to be a sum greater than all its putrefying parts because McGuire writes beautifully. This man knows words, and how to use them! Anyone who can use gallimaufry in a sentence in a "stinking" adventure novel about the sea without making it sound priggish or pretentious has really got my attention.

The first few chapters, I have to admit, had me chortling over the cartoonish characters. These worthy whaling men stopped just short of grinding out such phrases as "Aaaarrrr, is that you, matey? Ahoy and Blimey, but I'll send ya to Davey Jones' locker yet, my pretty..."

But, having got that out of his system, McGuire really changes the game and sets out to scourge the seven seas with the strength of his prose.

If he could only work a plot that is worthy of his tremendous word skills, he would be a force to contend with in the writers' universe.

The strength and polish of his exquisite writing style kept me reading to the end, even though I didn't much enjoy the tale.

This was on the long list for 2016 Booker Prize and while it probably shouldn't have been there in the first place, it is a far, far better read than both Eileen and Hot Milk, which ended up on the short list. Go figure!

Profile Image for Peter Boyle.
488 reviews596 followers
August 24, 2016
If you like your historical fiction bleak, bloody and barbarous, then Ian McGuire's Booker long-listed The North Water is the one for you. Think Moby Dick by way of Quentin Tarantino and you're not far off.

It tells the story of a doomed whaling voyage in the 1850s. The Volunteer sets sail from Hull with the motliest of crews, made up of brutes and savages and skippered by the dubious Captain Brownlee. In the first few pages we meet Henry Drax, a vicious harpooner with a thirst for murder. He casually slaughters a drinking partner and rapes a young boy in the harbour before even setting foot on the ship. "The law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer," Drax declares. Clearly not an upstanding member of society. We follow the action mostly through the eyes of Patrick Sumner, an Irish surgeon who is both mentally and physically burdened from serving in the siege of Delhi. He seems to be one of the few morally sound people on board, even if he has a few skeletons in his own closet. But will he survive the unforgiving Arctic conditions and this dangerous, unscrupulous crew?

The graphic violence in this absorbing, fast-paced novel has drawn comparisons to the more gruesome aspects of Cormac McCarthy's work. I wouldn't consider myself squeamish in the least but I must admit to wincing at some of the more grisly passages:
Cavendish, without raising the rifle from his hip, tilts the barrel upwards and shoots him through the throat. The top portion of the Shetlander's skull detaches and flies backwards against the steeply pitched canvas roof, leaving a broad red bulls-eye and, around it, a fainter aureole of purplish brain matter.

I quite enjoyed The North Water for the most part. It is a gripping tale of survival and a convincing vision of legendary nautical adventures, populated with a cast of memorable characters. McGuire's sharp dialogue and stylish prose help to create an unnerving atmosphere of peril and suspense on the high seas. However the violence eventually loses its power to shock because of its frequency. And while it is an entertaining story, there is nothing particularly *new* here - I don't really understand why it is deemed Booker worthy. I would describe The North Water as a very well-written thriller rather than literary fiction. It's an enthralling, vivid and unsettling novel.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,602 reviews2,571 followers
July 28, 2016
A gritty tale of adventure and murder set aboard a mid-nineteenth-century whaling ship. Archaic adjectives pile up in a clever recreation of Victorian prose: “The men, empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish’s steaming, expectorated gore.” Much of the novel is bleak and brutal like that. There are a lot of “F” and “C” words, too, and this is so impeccably researched that I don’t doubt the language is accurate. McGuire never shies away from the gory details of life, whether that’s putrid smells, bodily fluids, animal slaughter, or human cruelty. I thought the novel’s villain was perhaps too evil, with no redeeming features at all. Still, this is a powerful inquiry into human nature and the making of ethical choices in extreme circumstances. From the open seas to the forbidding polar regions, this is a journey worth taking.

Non-subscribers can read an excerpt of my review at BookBrowse.
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