“There Is No Why”: Ian McGuire, The North Water


“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.

scandal-tessa-dareThere’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.northwater2


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.

angel-finaleThe 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.

12 thoughts on ““There Is No Why”: Ian McGuire, The North Water

  1. Amateur Reader (Tom) October 20, 2016 / 9:41 pm

    First, I love the new Angel-themed format.

    Second, I was thinking “How purple?” Then you gave me “a vast and multi-coloured murmuration” – okay, pretty purple. Which from me is not a criticism.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 20, 2016 / 10:07 pm

      I know! I’m two for two with the Angel references in this week’s posts. You people have only yourselves to blame. 🙂


  2. Teresa October 21, 2016 / 9:19 am

    I think I liked this book so much because the Booker list this year was full of books that were poorly plotted or seemed to abandon plot altogether. A book that was all well-executed plot was a refreshing change.

    But your thoughts on the meaningless of it I think add to my appreciation. I keep coming back to the line where the characters are “unable to parse the world implied by such events.” As someone who wants to analyze everything to create some bigger meaning, I appreciated seeing someone say that it sometimes can’t be done. Spending more time trying to investigate might have ended up accidentally creating some meaning. Just letting it go showed a kind of commitment to the idea.

    And, I, too, would love a word for this kind of language. It turns up a lot in historical fiction and usually annoys me, but this was a case where it worked well, with purpose. But you’re right that this obsession with ugliness should not be rewarded over its more pleasant counterpart. Either style can be employed well or badly.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 21, 2016 / 4:14 pm

      I think that’s a fair point about acknowledging, even formally, the absence of any bigger or underlying meaning. I guess I still prefer doing more than just depicting that randomness.

      What would be antonyms to flowery? Merriam-Webster gives things like “prosaic” or “unadorned,” so maybe that’s the wrong direction, because we need a word that keeps the connotations of florid or excessive but associates them with dirt, or rot, or nastiness. Excrescent?


  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) October 21, 2016 / 11:28 am

    Flaubert thought that the surface he created – the plots and subjects – were in some ways meaningless but that his treatment of them created meaning. The complex patternings he created out of the story, were where the real meaning (and beauty) of his art resided.


    • Scott Bailey October 21, 2016 / 2:17 pm

      Yeah, it’s entirely possible that McGuire thinks his book is chockablock full of meaning, but it’s so personal a meaning that it’s invisible to most readers.

      There’s a history of brutality in seafaring books, from Moby-Dick to The Sea Wolf to Two Years Before the Mast, etc. A lot of narratives of exploration and adventure, especially from the late 19th century, are also pretty nasty. Though many of those real-life adventurers were reciting poetry while killing things and resorting to cannibalism.

      I’m with Tom on the Angel theme: keep it up! Ma femme and I are currently making our way through BtVS again, currently in Season 3. Last night we watched “Band Candy,” a true TV classic.


  4. Amateur Reader (Tom) October 21, 2016 / 2:55 pm

    The first sentence – and first paragraph – of the novel is, I kid you not, “Behold the man.” If anything there is too much meaning there for it to be decipherable.


  5. Scott Bailey October 21, 2016 / 3:23 pm

    I just read the first couple of pages. There has been a lot of this sort of writing since Jon Clinch’s Finn. Maybe before that, too. An expansion of Emma Bovary’s deathbed scene.

    It occurred to me about an hour ago that this focus on filth and decay is often just an easy gesture in the direction of verisimilitude, which costs a writer very little in the way of effort. “Dark” is the new “real,” you know. But vomit and murder are no more real than flowers and love. I should shut up, not having read the novel in question.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 21, 2016 / 4:18 pm

      “Vomit and murder are no more real than flowers and love”: yes. I’m interested in your suggestion that in some ways being so ugly is kind of lazy. Is it easier to do vomit and feces and violence “well,” perhaps, than to write flowers and love well — so that we don’t mock or dismiss them? A book that is in many respects the antithesis of The North Water is A Room With A View: it does sunny about as well as any really good novel I can think of — not without shadows for contrast, though. The North Water includes no flowers at all. It seems one-sided. Its language reminded me a bit, also, of Cormac McCarthy’s — but talk about someone whose books have (or at least assert themselves as having) too much meaning…


      • Scott Bailey October 21, 2016 / 5:59 pm

        I suppose some of this can be put down to a writer adopting a sort of Tone of Tragedy. I’ve written a couple of tragedies, but my model is always Shakespeare, where you get tragedy broken by beauty and comedy (tragedy is something that interrupts beauty, maybe, and life is always comic). The purely tragic stuff has always been easier to write, because I think we all accept that life is full of bad things. The beauty and comedy is always harder to write, especially if you differentiate between beauty and prettiness, and comedy and jokes. Pretty and jokey are easy enough, though shallow. Tragedy can be shallow and detailed. Beauty can’t be shallow, neither (I think) can real human comedy.

        The only McCarthy I’ve read (aside from excerpts and interviews) is The Road, and that was pretty airless and flat. The image that ends the book, of the fish in the stream, is beautiful, but it feels like something McCarthy had lying around that was tacked on to add some sort of depth to the narrative at the last minute.

        I’m sort of waffling around this issue because I haven’t read the McGuire.


  6. Amateur Reader (Tom) October 21, 2016 / 4:25 pm

    That first line is also a reference to the first line of Blood Meridian! (“See the child.”)

    I saw that in an interview with McGuire.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 21, 2016 / 4:33 pm

      Aha! Well, that explains a lot – though it doesn’t necessarily excuse it!


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