The North Water – Ian McGuire

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?

With savage, unstoppable momentum and the blackest wit, The North Water weaves a superlative story of humanity under the most extreme conditions. 

The North Water is gory and harsh as it examines life aboard an English whaling boat in 1852 which is bound for the Arctic. When the surrounding waters freeze for hundreds of days on end, conditions worsen, the ship becomes a hotbed of sodomy, murder, drink and theft. On land there is more murder and little comfort.

Ian McGuire plots his story with great skill and has recreated the 19th-century language with ease. Captain Brownlee thinks himself a good judge of character. He nominates Irishman Patrick Sumner as his new surgeon. Sumner has some rare human qualities and medical training that keeps him going with laudanum. Sumner is delegated to investigate the rape and, later, the murder of a cabin boy, Joseph Hannah, and bring the culprit to justice. Hannah is frightened to give evidence. Few others are willing to help Sumner. 

Once you start reading The North Water, it’s pretty much impossible to put down.

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