The Brutal Banality of Survival

The North Water by Ian McGuire
 

Do not read this book if you are squeamish about graphic descriptions of violence, blood, gore and truly horrible men. There are murders, betrayals, seal clubbing, whale slaughter and many other grisly activities, all described in vivid detail. The characters, all men, are violent, self seeking, venal and thoroughly obnoxious.

The story is about an army surgeon in the late 19th century who, down on his luck, joins an ill-fated whaler going into the arctic ice. Also on board are a crew of thieving, lying, hardened sailors; a gang of all that is worst in humanity. Amongst them is a cold killer who makes the rest look like upstanding citizens.

So why read it?

If you can stomach all that, the book rewards with well written story that is thoroughly researched and realised with a visceral authenticity. While it is difficult to empathise with Patrick, the surgeon, the reader stands with him as he struggles with the life he finds himself in, his conscience, unbelievable physical hardship and his own moral code.

Ship board life and the awful processes of whaling and sealing are described in detail. The homage to Melville is not only to Moby Dick (which is why I chose to read it) but also to a short story of Melville’s – ‘The Handsome Sailor’. The scenes on the ice are breathtaking in the juxtaposition of true splendour and the brutal banality of survival.

Should we only read about ‘nice’ things? While there is an aspect of being unable to look away from a car crash, there is merit in reading about worlds and people that are completely remote from our own lives. There is, however, in this book a recognition and uncomfortable familiarity in the psychology and motivation of most of the characters. This is testament to the power of the author to draw us in, almost against our will, and take us on this incredible journey.


Dianne is an Aurealis Awards judge and occasionally gets involved with SF&F conventions and fan activities.