A Book We’re Reading: The North Water

Whaling and violence?! Moby Dick meets American Psycho?!

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I finished a book on the plane the last time I was visiting home. Satisfying, but then left empty-handed. So I scoured my big brother’s old bookshelf for something to read over the following days that I’d be pottering around the house I grew up in. My brother, noticing what I was doing, threw me this: The North Water by Ian McGuire. It was wrapped in contact and had the stamp of his local library. “No go, then,” I thought, seeing as I was only home for a couple of days, and I’m no speedreader.

“Trust me, man,” my brother said, “Read that one, you’ll smash through it easy.”

And so I did. And he was right. And holy shit am I glad for it.

Brutal. That’s the word for this novel – a sickly, hard to put down story of a 19th century arctic whaling expedition doomed from the outset and told through the eyes and conscience of the ship’s drug addicted surgeon, Irishman Patrick Sumner. The writing rips off the pages with lucid violence to make a classic in the vain of Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness but with the unsettling savagery of American Psycho and the suspense of the sort of thrillers that litter airport book shops. It’s the kind of book that disgusts you, but with prose so good you just have to recommend it to all your friends. It also features one of the best villain characters you’ll ever come across in literature, Henry Drax. Oh dear oh dear, that Henry Drax… a true monster if ever there was one.

I’d text my brother as I was flying through the chapters, just one word and a couple of dots, “Drax…” To which he’d reply, “Fucken Drax!”

Mike Jennings