“If you can’t save him, then why are you here?” she asks. “What are you for?”
“I’m here by accident. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Everyone died except for you. Why did you live?”
“There is no why,” he says.
I always follow the proceedings of the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel with interest, partly just because I appreciate their sharp commentaries and exchanges about the Booker Prize nominees, and partly to help me decide which, if any, of the nominated books I’ll read. Of the six books on their short list this year, Ian McGuire’s The North Water was the one that most intrigued me: a number of the panelists were enthusiastic about it, plus I had such a good time reading Moby-Dick this summer that I was keen to go on another whaling expedition, despite Teresa’s warning that “no drop of blood or bodily fluid is left unmentioned.”
I can’t say that I enjoyed it very much. For one thing, Teresa was not exaggerating about the attention to bodily fluids and effluents of all kinds. From farts to feces, from urine to vomit, every emission (and there are many, given the brutality of the plot and the rough environment in which it is played out) gets meticulously and often (somewhat incongruously) eloquently described. A small sample:
In the night, the priest has a fierce bout of diarrhoea. Sumner is woken by the sounds of loud groans and splattering. The cabin air is dense with the velvet reek of liquid faeces.
There’s realism, and then there’s utterly, relentlessly, graphic and gruesome realism, which is very much the aesthetic principle of The North Water — McGuire offers not just a vision of the world warts and all, but of the world as warts only. I’ve also been reading Tessa Dare’s Do You Want to Start a Scandal? and the juxtaposition of the novels got me wondering about whether we have a label for McGuire’s style that would be the grim equivalent to the kind of (usually pejorative) terms used for romance writing — “flowery language,” “purple prose.” The implication of such labels is typically that the writing is excessive rather than expressive, that it’s artlessly out of control, rather than artfully serving its own purposes. (I still struggle with this reaction to some of it, but I’ve come a long way in understanding how well it can actually work since I first recoiled from Lord of Scoundrels.) What do we call writing like McGuire’s, that dedicates its excesses to pus rather than passion? And do we mock one but award the other because we assume ugliness is more literary? (Hmm, shades of Madame Bovary…)
But if you aren’t too squeamish for it, The North Water will carry you right along with its fast-paced story, which is part adventure story, part murder mystery, part survival narrative, and part revenge tragedy. All of this is well done, and McGuire’s prose is stylish without being mannered. I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of the strange and hostile environment his ship navigates:
During the night they entered Lancaster Sound. There is open water stretching to the south of them, but to the north, a granular and monotone landscape of ice boulders and melt pools, sculpted smooth by wind in places, but elsewhere cragged, roughened, and heaved upright into sharp-edged moguls by the alternations of the seasons and the dynamisms of temperature and tide.
It is dark when they return. The black sky is dense with stars and upon its speckled blank, the borealis unfurls, bends back, reopens again like a vast and multi-coloured murmuration.
The struggle of the characters to survive the hardships that come upon them is dramatically rendered, and there’s plenty of tension and surprise in the ways the parts of the plot resolve.
I was disappointed in The North Water in the end, though, for reasons that its protagonist, ship’s surgeon Patrick Sumner, neatly articulates: although a lot happens, there is no why to it all. The different aspects of the book — its crime story, its whaling, its survival story, its captive bear, its Christian missionary — fit into the plot but not, as far as I could tell, into any larger idea. Sumner and his antagonist, the evil Drax, are contrasting characters, sure, but they don’t create a strong thematic counterpoint; their final confrontation is a climactic event, but nothing more.
The absence of meaning can, of course, itself be meaningful, but The North Water didn’t read to me like an investigation or revelation of existential vacancy, and certainly not like a purposeful response to the possibility that “there is no why.” Compare Angel, for instance, in which a crucial motivating idea is that “if nothing we do matters, than all that matters is what we do.” The main insight I carried away from The North Water is “if you’re out in a blizzard, see if you can find a bear, kill it, disembowel it, and climb inside the carcase.” Not that that isn’t inspirational in its own way! But I’m not surprised or disappointed that The North Water didn’t make the actual Booker shortlist.