Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The North Water.
Set in 1859, this brutal recreation of the voyage of a whaler bears the weight of history as the industry enters its final days: “Steam
is the future, of course. With a powerful enough steamship, we could hunt them to the ends of the earth.” The tale of the
Volunteer begins in Hull, Yorkshire, as the ship prepares to venture into the Arctic Circle, a preview into the future suggested by the heart of darkness that beats in harpooner Henry Drax, an intimidating brute with an appetite for death and a passion for ecstasy--always at the cost of another. Drax has the mentality of a predator: sly, wily, and capable of outwitting those who would keep him from his desires, an ominous presence who hangs like a foul cloud over the fated excursion.
Jacob Baxter, owner of the
Volunteer, has hired Arthur Brownlee as captain for the voyage in spite of Brownlee’s reputation for failure, the loss of another vessel
(and all its crew) still on the minds of local sailors. Baxter and Brownlee have selected an unlikely surgeon for the crew: ex-army surgeon Patrick Sumner, an Irishman who survived the siege at Delhi, still haunted by nightmares of that event and an addiction to opiates. Signing on for a whaler is beyond Sumner’s experience, the demands of joining the bloody seal slaughter nearly sending the man to a watery grave before the captain decides his zeal for more blubber may not be cost-effective.
The plot takes shape over the long days at sea, where sailors wield cudgels to meet an ungodly quota, the surgeon spending evenings in a hallucinogenic fog in his cabin while shipmates join in raucous meals. But a pall is cast upon the voyage with the killing of a bear and the capture of her cub, ship morale unsettled by the discovery of a raped and murdered cabin boy. The wheels of justice turn slowly at sea subject to a captain’s discretion, Sumner appalled at the ease with which one man is singled out as the killer with little evidence. The lack of consistent orders undermines the crew’s spirits, most exhausted by the growing hazards of the journey, the option of a safe return critical as winter closes in, the miasma of evil spreading with each deadly challenge lost.
McGuire adds another layer of betrayal to a tale already in the throes of
nature’s indifferent brutality, the frothy gore of murder and starvation casting
all aboard the Volunteer into the jaws of fate. Ironically, the duplicity
of those at sea pales in comparison to a larger scheme at hand, the foggy brain
of the surgeon awakening too late to correct the course of his fate but just in
time to see danger as the shadow of a killer falls over him. Brutal, violent and
brilliant, the prose of life and death is stark in an era when civility is often