Booker Longlist: The North Water: Ian McGuire
My favourite so far of the books I’ve read on the longlist, Ian McGuire’s novel about a doomed C19 whaling expedition is a powerful, poetic and utterly compelling piece of work. McGuire’s undoubtedly extravagant appetite for gore is balanced brilliantly by the precision of his observations. There is nothing in this novel that seems lazy, or skimmed. Each insight is hard fought and worth having.
No-one on board this ‘unlucky’ ship is without flaw. From the corrupt and impotent Captain Brownlee through to the casual savagery of Henry Drax and the disgraced yet somehow decent Patrick Sumner, opium-addicted former surgeon in the British Army in Delhi, the characters are drawn into violence as if it were a climate. Violence is the flux of this novel, the medium in which it operates. And, if it is a climate, then it is aptly reflected in the scouring atmospheric layers of the novel’s environments: the harsh exactitude of being at sea is precisely matched by Arctic’s frozen indifference as the ship is stranded and its crew pitched onto the ice.
McGuire’s prose recalls Conrad, Melville, Hemingway and latterly Cormac McCarthy. This is a novel of masculinity, a novel of relentless action. There is no time for reflection, philosophy, nice consideration. Humanity is perforce as brutal and as harsh as the weather.
Among the many qualities that mark the novel out as original is the fact that the characters do not develop, and this is not perceived by the reader as a shortcoming, but rather an insight. There is no space for these men to develop. They remain resolutely themselves. However much we want to believe in the human capacity for change, for redemption, for forgiveness, in the end McGuire suggests, human beings have very little room for manoeuvre, either because of their character, their background, or their circumstances. And this is, at its heart, a merciful, quite tender observation. It seems Niezschean – indeed the novel begins: Behold the man - even melodramatic, but it emerges as a serious, subtle and even compassionate assessment of humanity. Drax and Sumner are pitched against each other, throughout the novel, but this is not a battle of good against evil, or the survival of the fittest. Their differences are as intransigent as their strangeness, as unique and particular as their histories. They are who they are: original, flawed, human.
The North Water is a book that had it merely been described to me, would have left me cold. But I loved it. It is a dark, sharp, beautiful novel, full of elemental potency. I recommend it to you with all my heart and deeply hope it makes the shortlist.
The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele