A quote from The New York Times which is printed on the back cover of this brilliant novel says, "The North Water feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition." That neatly sums up the impact and contents of this dark and violent story of a whaling ship in the hunting waters of the Arctic Circle, except that perhaps Herman Melville happens by as well.
Central to the plot is the confrontation between Patrick Sumner, an opium addicted doctor who has been dismissed from the army in disgrace, and Henry Drax, a rapist, sodomite, and murderer, who kills casually and without remorse. This is not, however, a parable about good and evil. Rather it is a picture of universal corruption, which differs only in degree from man to man. Headed by their ship captain, who has secretly colluded with the ship owner to sink the vessel for the insurance money, the rest of the crew, save for one mystical prophet and one young innocent victim, display themselves as connivers and savages. None are without sin.
The North Water is graphically violent, but it is saved from being just a pornographic blood-fest by the extraordinary quality of the writing. Every word seems to be carefully chosen to further the overall impact and theme. I was particularly struck by McGuire's use of details about smells to heighten the sense of human corruption.
It would seem to be contradictory to classify a book as harsh, brutal, and beautiful, but that is what this book is. I would highly recommend it, but it will not please everybody, just as Cormac McCarthy does not please everybody.
The North Water was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.