- The North Water by Ian McGuire
Scribner, 326 pp, £14.99, February 2016, ISBN 978 1 4711 5124 8
Ian McGuire’s second novel is an unflinching look at what men do, in extreme circumstances, for money, to survive, or for no reason at all. It has quite a lot – filth, sex, violence, swearing, historical revisionism – in common with TV shows like HBO’s Deadwood and its many descendants (including Peaky Blinders, excellent despite its terrible title, whose third series aired recently on BBC2), and for all its high moral seriousness, it grips like a horror movie. It begins:
Behold the man.
He shuffles out of Clappison’s courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air – turpentine, fish-meal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning piss-stink of just-emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money’s worth.
The man is Henry Drax – a perfectly ordinary Yorkshire surname, from the village near Selby, now best known as the site of Britain’s largest coal-fired power station. Perhaps because of the echoes of ‘Dracula’, as well as that sinister final ‘x’, it has lent its name to both a Nazi Bond villain, Hugo Drax in Moonraker, and a Marvel Comics anti-hero, Drax the Destroyer. McGuire’s Drax is a harpooner soon to ship out on the Volunteer, sailing from Hull in the spring of 1859. But he has a few hours before the boat leaves, so as well as drinking and whoring and waiting – ‘He finds a wall and sits down upon it; when he is hungry, he sucks a stone’ – he passes the time by killing and robbing a Shetlander who won’t buy him more than one drink, and beating, raping and murdering a nine-year-old ‘nigger boy’. Not one of the good guys then. Or, as McGuire puts it, ‘this courtyard has become a place of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations, and Henry Drax is its wild, unholy engineer.’
At which point, you may well be wondering: and I’m reading this historical paedo-snuff because? But then you take another look at that last sentence, and notice the way it slides – undergoing, you might say, a blood-soaked transmutation – from ‘magic’ to ‘engineer’. The shift is typical of McGuire’s writing: both the metaphorical melding of disparate spheres usually perceived as opposites (magic and engineering), and the presence of such subtle effects beneath the surface gloss of gore. Another dialectical metaphor, deployed as the Volunteer is leaving the ‘broad brown murk’ of the Humber – ‘To north and south, a scanty shoreline welds the rusted steel of estuary and sky’ – welds the supposed opposites of nature and industry (and the rust is a reminder that industry is not immune to nature, that the destructive effects work in both directions).
Also on board the Volunteer, under Captain Arthur Brownlee’s command, is Patrick Sumner, the ship’s surgeon, recently returned from India – he was at the Siege of Delhi – and now discharged, not altogether honourably, from the army. He is looking forward to an ‘easeful’ time on the Volunteer ‘after the madness of India: the filthy heat, the barbarity, the stench. Whatever the Greenland whaling is like, he thinks, it will surely not be anything like that’ – yet another apparent dichotomy, ripe for collapsing. Sumner will soon witness the madness of the north water: the filthy cold, the barbarity, the stench.
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