Tuesday is book review day! My goal for 2017 is to read one book a week this year. I don’t expect I’ll make it, but a worthy goal, right?
I recently finished THE NORTH WATER by Ian McGuire. It came highly recommended by a friend whose opinion I trust, the NY Times named it one of the best novels of 2016, and it was a longlist nominee for the Man Booker Prize.
About THE NORTH WATER: A nineteenth-century whaling ship sets sail for the Arctic with a killer aboard in this dark, sharp, and highly original tale that grips like a thriller….Behold the man: stinking, drunk, and brutal. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the rich hunting waters of the arctic circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money, and no better option than to sail as the ship’s medic on this violent, filthy, and ill-fated voyage….In India, during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which man can stoop. He had hoped to find temporary respite on the Volunteer, but rest proves impossible with Drax on board. The discovery of something evil in the hold rouses Sumner to action. And as the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic winter, the fateful question arises: who will survive until spring?
WHAT I LIKED: The writing itself is poetically dark, rich, and evocative. This was not a pretty era or a pretty setting, and though the words are rough, the use of language is deft. Think Charles Dickens meets Stephen King. A lot of so-called “literary fiction” is long on pretty words and short on action, and there is action here, although it’s often buried deep inside those words (see below). It’s almost like a boy’s adventure tale for a dark-minded adult reader. The setting of the North Atlantic in the heart of winter is fascinating, and McGuire does a great job of putting the reader right in the chill of things, with a well-imagined rough cast of characters one could easily imagine working aboard a whaler in the 19th century. And there were polar bears.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE: The plot almost gets lost in all that rich, evocative language. A major plot turn might be raced through in a paragraph while a loving description of how a whaling launch is outfitted could take pages. As a result, the pacing felt ponderous, and I found myself skimming in the middle third of the book, trying to find actions that actually advanced the plot, not finding it until about the 80 percent mark. (I acknowledge this probably has more to do with my penchant for genre fiction than the book itself.) As for that plot, it’s an interesting premise populated by unlikeable characters. Even Sumner, the disgraced physician turned opium junkie, is hard to care about. His emotional journey is a definite shift, from feeling guilt and shame over something for which he was a scapegoat to feeling no shame or guilt over the things he actually did. Is that a journey forward something, backward, or just a wandering through a slice of life? So while the book picked up in the final third, I’ll admit there was a point at about the 30-40 percent mark where it was in danger of becoming a DNF. The killer onboard the ship was far less interesting to me than the shenanigans of the ship’s owner. The killer was identified in the first chapter and disappeared long before the story ended, so the promised confrontation really…wasn’t.
All in all, I’m glad I finished the book; the tension of the final twenty percent helped make up the slog through the vast, swampy middle. It’s a dark read–definitely not light, escapist entertainment. I didn’t hate it, but I also didn’t love it. I’d give THE NORTH WATER three gators.
Does THE NORTH WATER sound like a book you’d enjoy? What are you reading now? Leave a comment to be entered for a $5 Amazon gift card.