Sunday, July 3, 2016

The North Water: a very short review

It's summertime, so a different sort of book ends up on the pile.

For me, it was Ian McGuire's astonishing thriller: The North Water.

The year is 1859.

The whaling era is coming to an end, though not all are aware of this yet. A well-traveled whaling ship named the Volunteer is embarking on a run up to the end of the ice pack, in the northern end of Baffin Bay between Greenland and Canada.

The name Volunteer is ironic at best, for none of the men aboard are really volunteers: the captain and some of the senior men are attracted by promises of wealth; the others are a truly motley collection of rag-tag ne'er-do-wells vacuumed out of the darkest, dankest corners of the foulest inns, brothels, and alleyways of every whaling port from Liverpool to Peterhead to Lerwick.

Soon enough the crew are assembled, the provisioning is made, the anchors are weighed, and we're off.

Among the ship's collection is our protagonist, Patrick Sumner, who, like the others, hasn't so much as volunteered for the Volunteer as he has accidentally fallen aboard:

"I have nothing much to do with myself and no money to do it with. I was passing through Liverpool on my way back from the lawyers in Dublin when I ran into your Mr. Baxter in the bar of the Adelphi Hotel. We got to talking and when he learned I was an ex-army surgeon in need of gainful employment he put two and two together and made a four."

Aboard, as well, is a man who may well become one of the best-known villains of modern literature, certainly one worthy of listing in the same breath as Anton Chigurh. Initially, we know him only by "Drax", or by "Drax the harpooner", though later we learn his full name is Henry Drax.

"Drax" is a wonderful name for a villain, bringing immediately to mind phrases like "Dracula" or "Axe Murderer" or even "dregs". Drax: it sounds like a sound you make while ill, or a pest that has invaded your crops, or a fungal infection acquired in some sordid location. He's even described as something other than human:

Drax's barnyard scent, dense and almost edible, dominates the room. He is like a beast at rest in its stall, Sumner thinks. A force of nature temporarily contained and pacified.

Henry Drax is all that, and more, which McGuire makes quite clear to us from the start:

Lead and pewter clouds obscure the fullish moon; there is the clatter of iron-rimmed cartwheels, the infantile whine of a cat in heat. Drax goes swiftly through the motions: one action following the next, passionless and precise, machinelike, but not mechanical.


He is gone completely, and something else, something wholly different has appeared instead. This courtyard has become a place of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations, and Henry Drax is its wild, unholy engineer.

So, the stage is set: we're out on a whaling ship, weeks or months from anything remotely construable as society, in the harshest of environments, on the foulest of tasks.

And then things start to really get bad.

There's lots more "vile magic," many, many more "blood-soaked transmutations," and no lack of "one action following the next."

You may not be able to breathe from page to page; you certainly won't be able to put the book down.

I didn't so much read this book as I inhaled it, consumed it, devoured it, dwelled in it. It gave me nightmares and woke me up in cold sweats.

But, for such a physical, such a visceral, such a bestial book, it is told with remarkable elegance:

Through a stuttering veil of snow he sees at the floe edge a bluish iceberg, immense, chimneyed, wind-gouged, sliding eastwards like an albinistic butte unmoored from the desert floor. The berg is moving at a brisk walking pace, and as it moves its nearest edge grinds against the floe and spits up house-size rafts of ice like swarf from the jaws of a lathe. The floe shudders beneath Sumner's feet; twenty yards away a jagged crack appears, and he wonders for a moment if the entire plateau might crumble under the strain and everything, tents, whaleboats, men, be pitched into the sea. No one now remains in the second tent. The men that were inside it are either standing transfixed like Sumner or are busy pushing and dragging the whaleboats farther away from the edge in a desperate effort to keep them safe. Sumner feels, as he watches, that he is seeing something he shouldn't rightly see, that he is being made an unwilling party to a horrifying but elemental truth-telling.

This book is so very much more than a penny paperback throwaway that it seems like there must somehow be more to it, some inner parable or greater lesson to be learned. Yet it seems to me that McGuire doesn't mean such. He is just telling a tale, even if the men within struggle to comprehend it:

"... Look around, Sumner. The confusion and stupidity are ours. We misunderstand ourselves; we are very vain and very stupid. We build a great bonfire to warm ourselves and then complain that the flames are too hot and fierce, that we are blinded by the smoke."

"Why kill a child though?" Sumner asks. "What sense can be made of that?"

"The most important questions are the ones we can't hope to answer with words. Words are like toys: they amuse and educate us for a time, but when we come to manhood we should give them up."

Sumner shakes his head.

"The words are all we have," he says. "If we give them up, we are no better than the beasts."

Otto smiles at Sumner's wrongheadedness.

"Then you must find out the explanations on your own," he says, "if that's what you truly think."

I'm not sure what I think; I don't know if I found out the explanations on my own, or if I ever shall.

I think I spent some time inside McGuire's vision, "seeing something [I] shouldn't rightly see, ... made an unwilling party to a horrifying but elemental truth-telling."

Whatever it was, it was much more than I expected from a summer thriller, even if in the end McGuire has to admit defeat of his ability to answer with words.

This is McGuire's first published book; I surely hope it won't be his last.

I'll know I'll be looking forward to whatever he decides to do next.

No comments:

Post a Comment