The North Water by Ian McGuire
Her Grace’s rating: out of 5 stars
Genre: historical fiction
I read it as an: audiobook
Narrator: John Keating
Published by: Macmillan Audio (9 May 2016)
In the 19th century, whaling ships often set out to the Arctic to bring back whale blubber and the furs of polar bears and seals. Henry Drax is a harpooner aboard the Volunteer, and Patrick Sumner is shipping out as the ship’s medic. Drax is a sick twist and Sumner is a disgraced army surgeon. When Sumner discovers that a cabin boy is being violently raped, and then later discovers the child murdered in the hold, it sets the two men on a collision course during this cursed voyage.
OK, so I know this was longlisted for the Booker in 2016. Neat. And yes, it absolutely had some beautiful writing, particularly when describing the scenery. But holy shit, y’all. This novel was chock full of unrelenting, vicious, gory violence. I am not a squeamish reader by any means, but the abuse and murder of children and cavalier slaughtering of animals, complete with many fully descriptive scenes, is more than I could handle this time.
I KNOW the depictions of violence and casual disregard for animal life was historically accurate, but Jesus fucking Christ. I think the author was getting off on it or something. For example, the scene where the whalers killed a mother polar bear and captured her cub was horrific. Or this gem:
Jones nods, takes a fresh blubber spade from the malemauk boat, waits for one of the sharks to come close enough, and then stabs at it, opening up a foot-long gash in its side. A loose-knit garland of entrails, pink, red, and purple, slurps immediately from the wound. The injured shark thrashes for a moment, then bends backwards and starts urgently gobbling its own insides.
And the joyful clubbing of baby seals. Or the near-orgasmic descriptions of whales blowing gobs of blood out their blowholes before they die, to the thrill of the men watching. And the multitude of excrement, both human and animal, or the vulgarity of the language (and believe me, I love a good fucking swear word). Is this really necessary? Again, I know this is the way it was back then, but there are ways to write that and still not be so enthralled with the violence. The gore and violence literally detracted and distracted from the plot.
I read this as an audiobook and found myself gradually increasing the reading speed just to get it over with. The narrator did a fabulous job of it, though. Five stars to his performance.
I once read the term ‘dicklit,’ and if ever there was a book to describe that, it is this one. Waiting to see how many men gather to explain why I’m wrong.