Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The North Water.
In the late 1850s, England is weaning itself off whale oil, preferring coal oil to the high risk of sending ships into the far reaches of the North Waters. To Henry Dax, harpooner for the Volunteer, which is lying in dock and waiting for the bloody six-month voyage to come, the isolation of ship life holds more appeal than dry land. Thinking only of the present moment--the cobbles beneath his feet and “the agnostic Yorkshire sky”--Dax is both entranced and revolted by the young boy whom he spies running errands for the drunkards gathered down in the sleazy taverns by the waterfront. In the dark of night, there’s no pleasure in the acts of sodomy or murder, and also no relief for Dax. As pewter clouds obscure the fullish moon, a courtyard becomes place of “vile magic and of blood-soaked transmutations.”
Eagerly escaping onto the Volunteer, Dax transforms into “a wild unholy engineer” and disappears into the anonymity of ship life, where the excesses of human coarseness and the abominable conditions are balanced against the many tough, hard-bitten men who sail north through the long days of fog and sleet and bitter wind, where the days exist without ease or letup and the sea and the sky “meld together.” For Cavendish, the Volunteer’s first officer, and for Brownlee, the ship’s captain, Dax is nothing but “a heathen with a drink inside of him.”
Into this chilly heart of darkness ventures the new fellow, ship’s doctor Patrick Sumner, who becomes our moral compass to the evil machinations of Dax. A Paddy surgeon fresh from the siege near Cashmere Gate, Sumner arrives on the Volunteer with only his trusted medicine chest in a battered tin trunk. Dimming his memories in a dark mix of rum and laudanum, Patrick is haunted by all that has beset him: the humiliation and disgrace of his time in the Colonies, the death of his parents, and the many misdirected or abandoned efforts that have led him to accept the position of a badly paid surgeon on a Yorkshire whaling ship. Fully intending to keep a diary, perhaps read Homer and make some sketches of the Arctic wildlife, Patrick soon develops a feeling of perpetual uncertainty, a surprising symptom of his “unbounded state.”
Initially, the men of the Volunteer are sure of the goal of their adventure, enduring patiently their first stop in Lerwick Harbor, where Captain Brownlee is tasked with the job of picking out the Shetland portion of the crew. The men are positive they will find great wonders in the northern ice fields, a world where a small fortune also awaits. The Volunteer is a strong ship, broad-waisted and dark and thick with rigging. As the great whales lie bunched in pods like “leaden storm clouds beneath the silent sheets of ice,” the crew take to sealing, splicing the whale lines, and overhauling the lances and harpoons.
Morale is high, the seafaring men enthusiastic and hardy--that is until a cabin boy cautiously comes to Sumner, shouldering signs of sexual abuse. At first Cavendish is marked out as the culprit, though Brownlee tells Sumner that “we are here to kills whales not root out sin.” Weary from the effort of arguing and soured by his failure, Sumner begins to resent the power of the captain and first officer. Then Brownlee is blaming his boss, Jacob Baxter, the Volunteer’s owner, and the expedition’s chief financier who originally chose “the idiot crew” and set this “whole unnatural” scheme in motion. On a ship full of incompetents and savages, “the filth and shite” of the dockyards, the boy’s rape becomes just the first in a perilous string of misfortunes. While Cavendish searches for someone to blame, Sumner begins to sense amongst the crewmen an anxiety edged with bitterness and anger. Brownlee’s promotion to the captaincy is tainted with unnaturalness and violence.
Far from the claustrophobic nature of their living conditions, the crew soon become unwilling captives of the gigantic ice floes, eventually stranded in the Arctic darkness, where everything is swirling and shifting and where nothing seems clear or distinct. Among the waves of fear and panic at these blizzard-like conditions, Sumner tries to fight through the green and melancholic haze of his laudanum withdrawal, to take charge and rescue his fellow men from their frozen fate. Realizing their best hope of rescue is gone, some of the men begin to weep while others start clumsily praying. The landscape enacts its terrible, fatal revenge on the Volunteer and her crew, yet a few including Dax and Sumner try desperately to forge ahead within this deathly white and unforgiving landscape.
Although the animal violence was difficult to read, McGuire captures the inherent brutality of these men as they trek into the iceless reaches of the North Water, challenging us to contemplate the darkness nascent in all human beings. Sumner is lost and bereft, straying from his true purpose, while Dax’s inherent thirst to kill carries him blindly forwards. Building his intricately wrought book to a blood-soaked final battle for survival, McGuire makes Dax’s bottomless evil both shocking and compelling.