Coarse language? Yes. Vulgarity? Yes. Violence? Yes. Brutality? Yes. Graphic references to bodily functions and smells? Yes. Murder? Yes. Greed? Yes. Animal cruelty? Yes.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what you’ll find in The North Water by Ian McGuire. It is definitely not a novel for the squeamish. But if you enjoy reading about the gritty, harsh reality of life on a whaling boat in the late 1850s; good versus evil fought against the expansive backdrop of the Arctic with its inhospitable climate; man against beast; and the struggle for survival in nature at its harshest, you will enjoy this novel.
Ian McGuire holds nothing back in descriptive detail. His extensive research on the whaling industry is on full display in the novel. With unflinching honesty, he evokes the sights, sounds, smells, and activities of men on a whaling boat and their efforts to survive amid Arctic snow drifts and blizzards. There are echoes of the work of Jack London, Melville’s Moby Dick, and William Faulkner’s short story, “The Bear.”
Through their coarse, vulgar dialogue and the descriptive detailing of their appearance and behavior, the characters emerge as well-rounded figures who are all too real. McGuire provides a stunning example of evil personified in Henry Drax, a man without a conscience or moral compass. He takes what he wants and slits the throat of man or beast without batting an eye. Pitted against him is Patrick Sumner, a flawed hero struggling with his past and hiding in a fog of laudanum addiction. The narrative clips at a rapid pace with an unremitting suspense that grips the reader from the first page to the last.
Historical accuracy, attention to detail, the portrayal of complex characters, a vernacular that captures the coarse speech of men on a whaling vessel, and the use of present tense to generate immediacy combine to immerse the reader in a real time, in a real place, and with real people.
A compelling read. Highly recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction with the grit and authenticity of the period.