‘The North Water’ by Ian McGuire – A Brutal and Compelling Whaling Ordeal


‘The North Water’ by Ian McGuire     (2016) –   253 pages


e74b5277-4020-4dfa-9554-d47b7c4082e3img400“The North Water” is a tale about a 19th-century Arctic whaling expedition.  Whaling was a rough ugly business but I suppose not much more disgusting than any business where animals are slaughtered.    Not that I am a vegetarian…

We tend to think of whales as glorified huge fish, but they are actually mammals just as we are.   Whales were eaten as meat, the whale oil was used widely in lamps, and the whale bones were used in corsets.  At the time ‘The North Water’ takes place in the late 19th century, the petroleum industry was making the whale oil usage nearly obsolete.

Don’t expect ‘The North Water’ to prettify the whaling business, not at all.  If you can stomach lines like the following about an already dead decomposing whale, you will get on with this novel:

“The blocks of blubber they slice and peel away are miscolored and gelatinous – much more brown than pink. Swung up onto the deck, they drip not blood, as usual, but some foul straw-colored coagulation like the unspeakable rectal oozings of a human corpse.”

Otherwise if you can’t handle these lines, don’t even try to read this novel.  Sometimes I believe Ian McGuire is determined to gross us out.

You are not going to hire refined gentlemen as your crew on a whaling ship.  You take the men you can get.

“He is a prick and a brute, but so are half the men on this bark.”

The worst is Henry Drax.  ‘The North Water’ opens with a scene in a London tavern district where Drax smashes in the heads of another man and a 10-year-old boy during a last drunken binge before boarding the whaling ship.   Drax is a good harpooner.

The story is told from the point of view of the whaling ship’s doctor who has his own questionable past in the India colony.

What does it matter, he thinks, if he is surrounded by savages, by moral baboons? The world will continue on as it wants to anyway, as it always has, with or without his approval.”

This is a relentlessly violent tale.  There are few lulls in the action which would have allowed us readers to better appreciate the intense scenes when they do occur.  Every scene is a harrowing experience.  ‘The North Water’ definitely works as a hellacious adventure story, but some of the great sea novels of the past like ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Lord Jim’ have had an extra dimension to them of either philosophy or social interaction that put them beyond just a brutal ordeal .  I missed that extra dimension in ‘The North Water’.


Grade:    B+



4 responses to this post.

  1. It might be a great book, but no thanks, I read enough about whaling in Moby Dick to last me for the rest of my life!



    • Hi Lisa,
      But ‘The North Water’ is ten times more gross than ‘Moby Dick’. I really liked Moby Dick because of its spiritual dimension.



      • I read it the wrong way… it was a while ago, before eBooks, and I read it through Daily Lit which used to send small chunks of it to my email every day. That’s no way to read a book, I soon realised, but I’ve never been tempted to revisit it properly.
        But the other thing that destroyed Moby Dick for me happened when we were on a weekend trip to Hobart (as I was coming to the end of the reading). We went to the museum where they had a film of whaling in Australian waters. It was small, and grainy, but it was absolutely horrible – I can still see it now even as I’m writing this…
        Maybe North Water should be translated into Japanese and free copies left lying about on their subways for people to read…



        • Getting a novel in email chunks, i never considered that. Of course a lot of great novels were published in serial magazines over many weeks.
          I doubt either that many people would want to watch what goes on in slaughter houses today to get their hamburgers, steaks, and chicken wings.



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