The North Water by Ian McGuire

What is with the Booker Prize judges these days?   Do they think gentle books are for wimps and that they have to choose the grittiest and most violent of the nominees to get attention?    Thank goodness this only made the long list – I’m reading it because it was chosen by a group.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind a good dose of violence in appropriate places and where the literary qualities of the narrative outweigh the brutality.  Blood Meridian is one of my favorite books of all time, but McGuire is no McCarthy.   He’s not even a Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings).


The North Water
by Ian McGuire –   England
2016 / 272 pages
read by John Keating
rating – 4 – historical fiction 
(Man Booker Long List – 2016)

What could be more violent than a whale chase in the waters off Greenland with bad-ass seamen of the 19th century?  Well – add a serial murderer to the crew and then what could be more violent? – Okay  – have said murderer also being a serial pedophile and child murderer.  With these as the low points of the novel there seem  to be no limits.    A Little Life by Hanya Yanahigihara is pretty bad but it’s graced and contrasted by such wonderful bonding between the friends.   We have none of those warm fuzzies in McGuire’s book.

A truly viscous guy named Henry Drax is on board a whaling vessel along with a illicitly rich doctor named Sumner who is taking a rest along with a lot of opium.  The year is 1859 and the waters are those around Greenland where there are icebergs,storms, seals, walruses, bears, and other men to cause pain and death.   The main  point is survival.

The book is historical simply because it takes place in the past – however slender the historical aspects presented.

And the book is literary because it has a theme which in 2017 we often take to be universal,  man’s basic instincts are about survival at any cost.   It’s not good vs evil,  it’s bad vs evil.   There are plenty of literary allusions scattered throughout  – Moby Dick,  Lord Jim, others.

All that said I really don’t like books which take place on old ships (although Moby Dickis pretty good),  nor do I enjoy books with so much violence in them (and Blood Meridian is excellent!) .  The brutality and violence here are not gratuitous because  brutality and violence are the main theme.  The rating is low.



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