The North Water by Ian McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”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.
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