#BookReview The North Water by Ian McGuire @ScribnerUK


— Winner of the RSL Encore Award 2017 —

A ship sets sail with a killer on board . . .
1859. A man joins a whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle. Having left the British Army with his reputation in tatters, Patrick Sumner has little option but to accept the position of ship’s surgeon on this ill-fated voyage. But when, deep into the journey, a cabin boy is discovered brutally killed, Sumner finds himself forced to act. Soon he will face an evil even greater than he had encountered at the siege of Delhi, in the shape of Henry Drax: harpooner, murderer, monster . . . 

‘A tour de force’ Hilary Mantel
‘Riveting and darkly brilliant’ Colm Tóibín


Ian McGuire

Ian McGuire grew up near Hull and studied at the University of Manchester and the University of Virginia, USA. He is a founder and co-director of the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. His stories have been published in the Chicago Review, Paris Review and elsewhere, and his first novel was Incredible Bodies. The North Water is his second novel.


I have always had an interest in the origins of phrases and sayings. An odd statement, perhaps, with which to start a review but I am hoping you will give me a little latitude.  Crossing the line is a fairly well-debated phrase thought by some to relate to a line drawn in the sand of battle and others to be a ship’s crossing of the equator; regardless of origin, its accepted meaning is to go too far.  There are few amongst us who can identify that ‘line’ without crossing it.  It requires a rare talent to navigate a course excruciatingly close to the edge of anticipation, desire, brutality or pain without tumbling over into the abyss of ‘gone too far’. 

Stay with me, I am nudging in the direction of a point!

Ian McGuire pitches his second novel ‘The North Water’ absolutely perfectly.  It sails within a hair’s breadth of the line on innumerable occasions but pulls back just in time.  It would be fundamentally wrong to set a story on board a nineteenth century whaling ship and make it anything but brutal, coarse and cruel.  The harsh life and landscape are perfectly reflected in the language, mannerisms and men.   At points it reaches for such deep depravity that just turning the pages makes one feel soiled and somehow implicated and yet it is immensely readable.  There is a beauty in McGuire’s writing style and a softness in some of his phrasing that cajoles the reader to continue.  There is a rhythm to the book; the sharp, quick sting of something horrific  followed by a more gentle, lyrical lull or hush.  Thundering weather versus frozen, vacant isolation. 

‘The North Water’ appears to have been exceptionally well researched and has a confident, authoritative air.  Outlandish but technically possible is a recurring theme which prompted several somewhat colourful Google searches on my laptop:  Is it possible to survive a blizzard by…?  How much force is required to kill using a…?  Likely side effects of imbibing a…?  I fear I am perilously close to the line so I will stop at that without giving too much away.  If you want to fill in the blanks, you will have to buy the book.  Five Stars. 

By J.A Warnock for Love Books Group

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