‘The air is filled with the foetid air of butchery and excrement. Drax feels pleasure at this work, arousal, a craftsman’s sense of pride. Death, he believes, is a kind of making, a kind of building up. What was one thing, he thinks, is become something else.’
Ian McGuire’s second novel The North Water is centred on a doomed expedition to the Arctic. Set in 1859, the book follows the whaling ship the Volunteer; during the voyage a young crew member is found murdered, and – plagued by his own guilt – the ship’s surgeon Patrick Sumner feels compelled to bring the killer to justice.
Using these familiar genre conventions in such an unusual setting were enough to start me reading. But what kept me doing so was the remarkable sensory power of McGuire’s writing, which takes the novel far beyond your standard crime novel and into unique territory. I’ve read few books which have evoked such feelings of visceral – revulsion? Disgust? Not emotions normally associated with a pleasant reading experience – but perhaps that’s what makes them so singular and so powerful. Take this example, from the Volunteer’s first run-in with a whale. The crew are in the last stages of killing it:
‘The lance slides in another foot. A moment later, with a final roar, the whale shoots out a plume of pure heart’s blood high into the air and then tilts over lifeless onto its side with its great fin raised like a flag of surrender. The men, empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish’s steaming, expectorated gore, stand up in their flimsy boats and cheer their triumph.’
I know nothing about whaling, but if The North Water is any guide, it must have been a violent, messy, stinking, dangerous business – in McGuire’s words, ‘accompanied throughout by the stench of grease and blood.’ And if the whaling process were not horrific enough (certainly to our modern sensibilities), the crew of the Volunteer have other trials in store as they near the Arctic. The ship’s captain Brownlee has his own plan to provide for his imminent retirement; but in putting it into action he leads his men into further peril.
In one of the book’s most startling scenes, Sumner hunts a polar bear across the ice, pursuing it in order to provide food for himself and the rest of the ship’s crew. Delirious, suffering from hypothermia, desperate to survive, he finally catches up with the bear, killing it in the midst of a disorientating blizzard. Sumner then cuts the bear open:
‘He feels the sudden kitchen-heat of the bear’s inner organs, and tastes the heady, carnal fetor that rises out of them. He drops the blubber knife onto the snow and pushes both his bare hands down into the dead bear’s steaming guts. His frozen fingers feel like they might burst apart from the warmth. He grinds his teeth and pushes his hands in deeper. When the pain reduces he pulls them out, dripping with red, rubs his face and beard with the hot blood, then picks up the knife again and begins to sever and remove the bear’s innards.’
As someone with a strong stomach, I was still startled by the force of McGuire’s description. I read this passage and what follows whilst lying in bed one Saturday morning, all the while my mouth hanging open in shock. This was one of many sections in The North Water that achieve that rare trick: pushing the real world to one side, and utterly convincing the reader they are sharing a moment with the book’s fictional characters. Afterwards, I skipped my usual bacon for breakfast. And there’s not many books I can say that about.