The North Water, by Ian McGuire, is a combination adventure tale, morality play, historical novel, and singularly astute assessment of the characters of men under the most extreme of circumstances, particularly keen on understanding how easily money corrupts men. One of the last whaling ships to go to, basically, The North Pole, at a time when whaling is on its way out (think oil, in today’s world economy, and its slippage as a dominant fuel), is doomed to failure, because the men in charge have been bribed to make sure that the vessel they captain will sink in the ice floes and icebergs of the Far North. Key characters include Baxter, the man who stands to gain the most if the ship sinks (he’s the owner/backer of this ship and its cargoes); one captain, Brownlee, whose corruptibility doesn’t seem complete; and the two men right under him, both corrupt, but one completely evil. Add to this list the ship’s surgeon; whaling ships didn’t really need surgeons, and why Sumner, the character at hand, is on this ship is a subject for debate and doubt, though he will, in his way, become the hero of this journey, even if a reluctant one; Sumner’s been truly wronged in a past posting to India, and he’s on this ship north hiding from that past and hoping to find a new life as a surgeon somewhere after this ship returns.
McGuire’s sense of the character of men under extreme duress–they could, in contemporary times, be soldiers in any contemporary war, from Vietnam to the Iraqs and Afghanistans, if you so extrapolate the men in The North Water. McGuire seems to suggest that greed and corruption are relative, that some men are inherently evil and go on these journeys (where authority may always be in question in the middle of nowhere), but that evil men are often clever men, and with little to lose, they sometimes appear to be courageous. And McGuire introduces a tough topic as a subtext: someone on this ship has been “sodomizing” a young cabin boy of l3, and also murders this boy, and it’s fascinating to see how the main characters are quick to pick and judge the wrong man, just to have a culprit/suspect, and how our young surgeon figures out who the killer is by examining medical evidence–so he would be next to be killed, supposedly. Various Esquimaux (McGuire’s spelling) trappers/hunters come along as the crew of this ship gets stranded and it becomes clear that all the men are going to starve/freeze to death. These clashes of culture are fascinating, and the matter of trust a major theme amongst men of both the same backgrounds and entirely different ones. Our young surgeon will be considered a form of native god to the Esquimaux for reasons not necessary to explain here. But whether reason and relative goodness will win out over evil is the major theme of this novel, and the answer(s), again, are relative, as perhaps there’s no absolute good nor absolute evil, both being relative to the situation(s) at hand. Issues regarding leadership, authority, how to persuade men to save themselves as inertia (both physical and mental) take them over all rear their heads in this absolutely fascinating novel: it feels/seems very old-fashioned, but it’s also completely contemporary in the issues it raises, the main one being: what is the nature of man? And on top of these philosophical issues, McGuire has created a first rate old-fashioned adventure story, and, I think, that few will guess how the book will move along, and which men lose their “good” sides, and how evil often triumphs, particularly when it’s coupled with greed.
Written in rather bold, but simple narrative prose, McGuire’s The North Water is one of the surprise treats in fiction in 20l6, a year that’s bringing more good fiction than perhaps we’d had any right to hope for, but proving again that themes and plots and studies in character/psychology remain at the heart of the novel, and that writers from across the globe are still creating fiction which addresses such issues. The North Water’s a great read as well as one of the most astute novels addressing themes that seem both ancient and contemporary to us in our increasingly fragmented, anxious, angry world.