American literature, Book review, Literary criticism

The North Water by Ian McGuire

Ian McGuire pic

English academic and writer, Ian McGuire.

Since 1996 Ian McGuire has been at The University of Manchester initially as a lecturer in American Literature and more recently as a lecturer in Creative Writing. He now co-directs the Centre for New Writing. His first novel, Incredible Bodies, “very funny and disconcertingly sad” said The Times; a contemporary campus novel was published by Bloomsbury in 2006. He specialises in the American realist tradition; Melville, Conrad are evoked in The North Water, his second novel (2016), and not just because it is set on a whaler. However the tone is most-certainly modern, mainly because of the very modern ‘foul’ language: he pulls no punches.

McGuire’s notable reviewers of The North Water, Hilary Mantel, Martin Amis, and Colm Tóibín, have written repeatedly about his “narrative tension” and his “remorselessly vivid” prose but when the writer writes narratives, each stuffed with its own tense detailed vividness: the brutal murder, then rape of a street urchin; the evisceration of a screaming sepoy; a face blown away with musket-shot; an arm ripped from a man’s torso by a ravenous polar bear; that same creature killed with a harpoon to the spine; the slaughter, dismemberment, and carving up of whales and their blubber; the medical inspection of a ravished anus; oh, and a whoring piece of low-life who sniffs then sucks his filthy fingers just “getting his final money’s worth”, all one needs to do is describe all this simply and accurately and ‘remorseless vividness’ is what you’ve got. I’m not at all deriding McGuire’s work, quite the opposite, but when your material is as rich, rare, and image-encrusted as any material can get, describing it simply is what a talented writer must do; and he does.

The tale, circa 1859, is one of a whaling expedition from the sludge of the Humber estuary, northeast England, to the whiskey ‘n’ women – each at a shilling a pop – in Lerwick of the wind-blown Shetlands, then north, and north again, and as far north as one can possibly go, beyond the Arctic Circle to the North Water, northwest of Greenland, in a boat packed with foul-mouthed vagabonds, murderers, liars, rapists, brutish thugs, opportunists with grudges; where life is a drudge, full of excrement, gore, and blood; where death is as easy and as light as a penny; where killing is a chore after your porridge, and where one shits first or is forever shat upon. Get the picture?

All ye who must like your book’s characters keep well away from this one.

But, yes, it is one of the most pleasurable reads I’ve had in a long time. This is where literary fiction meets plot and the latter comes up trumps; ah, but oh how sweet a brutal plot can be when it’s dressed in literariness and style such as this!

There are two main characters, Henry Drax, a villain of “pure evil” if there ever was one – we see him in all his ‘gory’, literary; and Patrick Sumner, a disgraced surgeon from his days serving the Raj in India, where a simple miscalculation under fire shatters his reputation. These two misfits, one with a shadow of redemption, the other, with absolutely none, lock horns on a fatal voyage where whaling may or may not be the ultimate goal: no spoilers here.

McGuire uses an omnipotent third-person narrator with no literary qualms about swapping POVs; all for going where the narrative takes him. (See my previous post of The Filth Heart, where the writer, Dan Simmons, abounds in such undermining qualms). The pace is fast and engaging but for brief passage of short but dense and fascinating description. A great read!

Highly recommended.

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