The North Water by Ian McGuire

I am such a sucker for a period piece. Even more of a sucker for one set in this particularly grimy, shitty period of English/European history. Even, even more of a sucker for a period piece about a weirdly specific industry that doesn’t exist anymore. Now, to be fair, this book isn’t exactly a deep dive into the whaling world (which, despite my love of learning anything and everything history, even the horrifying stuff, I’m a little thankful for. Whaling was fucking brutal. Have you ever read anything about whaling? I love whales, so maybe I’m more sensitive than your average Joe, but the sheer volume of animals that industry killed makes me a little sick to my stomach. The whaling boom didn’t last a terribly long time, some places that I read guesstimate it at about a hundred or so years, but it almost completely wiped whales out. Their populations have never recovered) but just having it as a backdrop to the story hooked me.

But really, this story could have been told anywhere, at any time. As much as I like the setting, and as much as it fits and helps to facilitate the plot, it’s not what this book is about. The real nugget at the centre of this novel is McGuire’s interest in the darkest parts of the human animal-what it is we want, why we want it, the things we’re willing to do to others to get it.

And boy howdy does he ever have a low opinion of us. This book is dark. While there are good people doing good things (our friend the doctor is a nominally nice guy…sometimes…sort of), the characters are mostly bad men motivated by base desires.

He outlines his ideas about men, as little more than beasts (though I do think he offers a good argument, several times throughout the book, that we can be better), through the two main antagonists of the story, Drax and (I guess spoiler? Eventually I’m just going to stop putting these in my reviews and just write whatever I want. Listen, whenever you read a review of something on my page from this point forward, just assume that it’s probably going to have a spoiler or two in it, but that I won’t ruin the major conflicts at the heart of the story for you. Okay? Okay) Baxter. While on the outside these two seem pretty different, beneath that they share the same dark, selfish motivations.

Henry Drax is all id, all desire, but of the emptiest, bleakest sort. He wants things, craves them, but he feels no passion for them. When he gets an urge, he uses whatever means necessary to satisfy that urge, and then he moves on, unhindered by the experience, unchanged by it. There never seems to be any enjoyment of a thing, any pleasure, and he never thinks about the morality behind his actions. In fact, he even states in the book that he thinks that morality in and of itself is pointless, just something that men like us use to impose our will on men like him. He’s the perfect brute, stripped of any feelings of obligation to the social contract. Like every dangerous, aggressive animal, he’s all surface, no depth.

Baxter, the secondary antagonist, is more complicated, more conniving, but ultimately the same. At the observable level he’s a gentleman, clean and wealthy and law-abiding. He plays the game, abiding by society’s rules on the surface, even using them to his advantage. But beneath all that, he’s the same type of animal as the first. His desires differ (money, status, power), but his willingness to do anything to get them is the same. Drax is meant to be the more monstrous of the two, a vomit-streaked and blood-soaked child murderer, his crimes all violent and committed by hand, up close. But, if you crunch the numbers, Baxter has the much higher body count by the end of the book, and seems just as unbothered by it.

All of that is just a really long, roundabout way of saying that I thought this book was great (and I didn’t even get to really talk about the main character! He was so good! Sympathetic and genuinely decent, but a bit of a fuck up nonetheless. At times a good person, other times a little pathetic and selfish and shortsighted). It was dark and bleak, but not completely despairing (again, there are good people doing good things just for the sake of doing them). The writing was beautiful, the characters were complicated and interesting, and the story was gripping as hell. One of my favourite reads of the year so far.

As always, with love,

VBR

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