The North Water 
by Ian McGuire.
Scribner, 326 pp., £14.99, February 2016, 978 1 4711 5124 8
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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.

Drax and Sumner – the point of view rarely strays from one or the other – appear at first to be opposed in every way. Drax is a killer, both professionally (he’s a harpooner) and by inclination; Sumner’s job is saving lives, or trying to. Sumner means well; Drax lives according to his appetites. Drax is uneducated; Sumner reads the Iliad in Greek. Drax lives in the present moment: ‘He only acts, and each action remains separate and complete in itself: the fucking, the killing, the shitting, the eating.’ Sumner tries to tell himself that ‘only actions count … only events … It is a grave mistake to think too much.’ But he can’t help it. We learn almost nothing about Drax’s life before the voyage of the Volunteer; Sumner is desperate to escape his past but can’t help dwelling on it. We soon learn, in flashback, what happened in Delhi: the slaughter he witnessed, the bullets he dodged, the treasure he stole, the lives he didn’t save.

When the ‘torn, dead and naked body’ of one of the cabin boys, Joseph Hannah, is discovered in a cask meant for storing minced blubber – the novel enforces the idea that there is a continuity between sanctioned violence against animals (whales, bears, seals, dogs) and unsanctioned violence against other people – suspicion soon falls on the ship’s carpenter, who ‘has been seen ashore in public houses canoodling with the Molly men’. His protests that ‘it hant ever been boys … the boys int to my taste’ are ignored. Drax bears false witness against him. But The North Water isn’t a murder mystery. The reader knows, and Sumner soon suspects, that Drax himself raped and murdered the boy. It looks for a moment as if the book is gearing up for a lengthy showdown between the two, but then the surgeon finds a piece of conclusive evidence against the harpooner (one of the dead boy’s missing teeth is embedded in Drax’s arm). Drax confirms his guilt by assaulting the captain and first mate with a whalebone walking stick, and is clapped in irons in the hold.

But Sumner and Drax, like Jekyll and Hyde, have more in common than either would care to admit. In their different ways they both see the world more clearly, with fewer illusions, than any of their shipmates. Drax may claim to be ‘a doer not a thinker’, but he seems to have thought through his pragmatism. ‘The law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer,’ he tells Sumner. He has more plans than he admits to, and for all his claims that ‘one thing happens, then another comes after it,’ his insistence that actions have neither causes nor consequences, it’s his actions that drive the plot. When he describes himself, with irony, as an ‘honourable man’, it’s hard not to suspect him of having Mark Antony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar in mind.

Sumner, meanwhile, for all his pretensions to cerebral aloofness – he watches his first whale hunt from the crow’s nest – is ready to get his hands dirty when he thinks he needs to. There’s a fight with the crew of another ship in a brothel in Lerwick. ‘Sumner, watching, would prefer to stay neutral – he is a surgeon, not a brawler – but he can count well enough, and he understands his obligations.’ On the second day of whaling, ‘since he is otherwise unoccupied’, Sumner ‘is given a pick-haak and a long leather apron’. After several hours of hauling twenty-pound blocks of blubber across the deck, he feels the ‘crude, physical pleasure of a task accomplished, of the body tested and proved’, and ‘sleeps for once without the aid of laudanum’. But, above all, what Sumner and Drax have in common is that they are survivors. In the most basic reckoning, the crew of the Volunteer – and perhaps, the novel implies, all people everywhere – can be divided into two groups: those who live and those who die. And here Sumner and Drax are on the same side.

They both have brushes with death. During an excursion onto the ice to club baby seals (and shoot the adults), Sumner loses his footing and slips into the water. One of the harpooners, Otto, ‘thinks it probable that during the several hours Sumner was missing on the ice, his soul departed his material body and travelled out to the other, higher realms’. Otto is a follower of Swedenborg. Sumner ‘doesn’t wish to disappoint him, but all he remembers is pain and fear, and then a long, dark, unpleasing kind of nullity’. Otto’s presence in the novel is an implicit counterargument to the idea that doing the work of a harpooner necessarily turns a man into a monster. He tells Sumner that ‘what we can imagine or think exists as truly as anything we can touch or smell’ (the novel is fixated on stink). Later, emptying ballast water from barrels that are to be filled with blubber, Otto ‘seems immune to the repellent stench’. This could mean that he’s deluded, or it could mean that he’s right, or right enough, to believe what he does: whatever it takes to get through the day.

The true purpose of the Volunteer’s voyage is another apparent mystery, like the cabin boy’s murder, that’s solved sooner than expected. ‘Don’t fuck this up,’ Baxter, the ship’s owner, tells Captain Brownlee before he sails. ‘Don’t misremember what we’re up to here … this is definitely not about the fucking fish.’ Baxter doesn’t want the ship to come home: he’s planning to get out of the whaling business, and looking for a hefty insurance payout. ‘We killed them all, Arthur,’ he says. ‘It was tremendous while it lasted and magnificently profitable too. We had 25 fucking good years.’ But there aren’t enough whales left, and ‘besides, no one even wants the whale oil any more – it’s all petroleum now.’ Again, whale oil and petroleum may seem to the characters in the book to be opposites, but we know better: rather than putting an end to man’s depredations in the Arctic, the burning of fossil fuels will only continue and accelerate them. Melting ice caps pose a greater threat than men with harpoons, clubs, lances and guns.

And naturally they are all men. Women are absent from the ship and (most of) the novel. The talk is all men’s talk, and that’s part of the point. A whale’s upper jaw ‘hangs tent-like above the deck with the black strips of baleen drooping from it like the bristles of a gigantic moustache’. ‘By Christmas,’ the first mate observes, ‘the bones of this dead and gruesome stinker will be nestling in the delicately perfumed corsets of some as yet unfucked lovely dancing the Gay Gordons in a ballroom on the Strand.’ The men sing as they row the whaling boats back to the ship, ‘three dozen men in unison’, and Sumner ‘feels … almost against his will … that he is part of something larger and more powerful than himself, a joint endeavour’. But being part of a team, assimilating to a claustrophobic, all-male environment, isn’t the same as feeling sympathy for another human being; there are limits to that even for someone who isn’t a psychopath like Drax:

Sumner tries to imagine inhabiting the mind of a boy like that, tries to graps what it would feel like to see the world through Joseph Hannah’s sunken, shifting squirrel eyes, but the effort seems both absurd and faintly terrifying – like a nightmare of being transformed into a cloud or a tree. He shudders briefly at the thought of such Ovidian transformations, then, with relief, reopens the Iliad and reaches into his coat pocket for the small brass key that commands the medicine chest.

Sumner reads the Iliad (and drinks laudanum) as an escape from the barbarous horrors on board the Volunteer. Not much of an escape, you might think, since the Iliad, that founding text of Western civilisation, is also an exhaustive catalogue of bloody slaughter. But there’s a big difference between reading about atrocities and living through them. And there’s a troubling pleasure to be got from well-made sentences about unspeakable acts.

The North Water is self-consciously literary, thick with allusions to other books: Moby-Dick, obviously (Sumner is less Ishmael than Ahab by the time he limps off across the ice in pursuit of a white bear); Conrad (there’s something of Lord Jim about Sumner, trying to redeem his shameful past, and more than a little of Kurtz in Drax); Elizabeth Gaskell’s only historical novel, Sylvia’s Lovers, set in a whaling community based on Whitby during the Napoleonic Wars; William Golding’s Rites of Passage trilogy (sex and death on a 19th-century merchant vessel); Frankenstein (the scientist and the monster pursuing each other across the Arctic wastes); Dracula (Brownlee dreams of drinking blood out of a shoe; Sumner drinks seal’s blood among the Inuit); even Nabokov (there’s a ship called the Zembla).

McGuire’s opening sentence is an ironic allusion to John’s gospel – ‘Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man’ – but it also recalls the beginning of the novel that The North Water most resembles, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: ‘See the child’ (itself an ironic allusion to John). Both are set in the 1850s, on the remote edges of empires, and document in remorseless detail the serial atrocities committed by bands of men beyond the reach of any law, ethics or illusion of redemption. And both challenge the hoary myths of frontier heroism.

It was in May 1859 – when, in McGuire’s story, the Volunteer is pushing west through Lancaster Sound – that Captain Francis McClintock discovered on King William Island the remains of John Franklin’s expedition to find the North-West Passage. Franklin’s ships had last been seen in Baffin Bay in 1845. An eight-foot bronze statue was put up in Waterloo Place in 1866, dedicated ‘to the great arctic navigator and his brave companions who sacrificed their lives in completing the discovery of the North West Passage’. The stories of incompetence and cannibalism took rather longer to emerge.

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