"The North Water" by Ian McGuire

Ian McGuire’s novel The North Water is a story about whaling. That alone invites comparisons to Moby Dick, and, indeed, both are gritty, realistic tales about adventures on nineteenth century whalers. But the stories are very different. The North Water is told in the third person and the present tense (which, combined with the graphic descriptions of violence and gore, has prompted comparisons to Cormac McCarthy).

Our protagonist is the Irish doctor Patrick Sumner, who served as an army surgeon during the Indian Rebellion in 1857. Brought low by his own greed and others’ dishonesty, Sumner returns to England in disgrace. The only job he can find is the dangerous, poorly-remunerated post as ship’s surgeon aboard the Volunteer. While Sumner is decent at heart, most of the men aboard the Volunteer are not; the captain and first mate are conspiring with the voyage’s financier to commit insurance fraud, and one of the harpooners, Henry Drax, is a manifestation of pure evil. Only Otto, a philosophical and spiritual harpooner, provides any sort of moral guidance among the crew. But Otto seems resigned to his fate and has no faith in the power of his actions to change anything.

The book is a vivid account of whaling’s latter days. It’s also something of a comment on morality, though the battle between good and evil takes place in the background as a group of desperate men struggle to survive. The book is mostly well-written, and I found myself drawn into the plot, if not the characters. The North Water is worth the read if this description sounds interesting to you, but be prepared for the unflinching descriptions of violence and depravity.