We read a lot around here in our efforts to stay abreast of the best books coming out every month. But there are also just so many, and every once in a while - much depending on your definition of a "while" - we miss a real whopper, something of such obvious quality that it's worth revisiting, no matter how long after the fact.
A perfect example: Ian McGuire’s novel set on a arctic whaler, The North Water, which appeared in hardcover in March 2016 and is now available in paperback. We should have known better - the book arrived with glowing blurbs from the likes of Hilary Mantel, Colm Toibin, and Martin Amis, a group not generally noted for dishing unearned praise - but McGuire's story offers a potentially difficult entry point. I’m not often put off by rough subject matter, but I set it aside after the first chapter, not sure if I would pick it back up. Seriously, this is dark stuff. But it’s also so good. A cat-and-mouse game between ship’s surgeon Patrick Sumner, a laudanum addict hiding from his past, and depraved harpooner Henry Drax, whose name might be a sick pun on a certain Romanian impaler, McGuire’s book is slick with blood and blubber and worse. But it’s also so driven, realistic, and suspenseful that I found myself compelled to continue. You’ll need a thick skin for this one. It might not be for you.
It was for me, though, enough that we attempted to make up for our oversight by including it in our Best Books of 2016. For the publication of the paperback, McGuire answered a few questions about his stunning novel.
An arctic whaling ship is an unintuitive, or at least unusual, setting for a thriller. Was that always the plan, and what did it allow you to do with the story?
While working on a different project, I came across the diary kept by Arthur Conan Doyle when he worked as a surgeon on a Dundee whaling ship. (At the time he was a 19-year-old medical student looking to earn some extra money). That gave me the idea of setting a murder mystery on board a Greenland whaler. At first, I wasn’t sure that I was interested in writing that kind of novel, but, as I thought about it more, the idea grew on me. In the end, The North Water isn’t really a Sherlock Holmes kind of mystery, but Arthur Conan Doyle is definitely where the idea originally came from.
The main advantage of setting a novel somewhere like the Arctic is that it allows you to explore what happens to your characters when the trappings of civilisation are taken away from them – what, if anything, is left? In that sense, the Arctic landscape in The North Water functions a bit like the heath in Shakespeare’s King Lear: it’s the place where the superficial and inessential is stripped away, and we are left with something much more raw and basic
The grislier particulars of whaling certainly lend themselves to your story (it had been a while since I last considered the word flense). What were your sources, or how did you go about your research?
The summer landscape in Baffin Bay, where the novel is mainly set, has changed considerably since 1859—there is a lot less summer sea ice now—so instead of travelling there, I relied mainly on written accounts from the period and on photographs. In particular, I read the journals kept by Arctic explorers and by the surgeons on whaling ships—who were educated men, and generally had enough time on their hands to record their experience. The recent historical literature on Arctic whaling is surprisingly limited, and there’s not much physical evidence left either, so that left me plenty of space to imagine things—which I liked.
Were there literary inspirations for the book? What were they?
While I was writing The North Water my most direct influences were Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy. Anyone writing a novel about whaling is working in the shadow of Moby Dick, and I had to find way of using Melville but not being dominated by him. There are certain sections on The North Water which are very strongly and directly influenced by Melville’s novel, but in other ways the novel resists his influence and tries to do something different. The North Water offers a much cruder, less philosophical, perhaps more realistic, version of whaling that you find in Moby Dick. What I took from Cormac McCarthy had more to do with style. I knew the Arctic landscape would be an important element of The North Water and I love the way McCarthy writes about landscape, so I wanted to try to emulate that. I also like the way McCarthy can move in the same chapter or even on the same page from a very pared down, simple style of writing (reminiscent of Hemingway) to a style that is verbally rich and complex (reminiscent of Faulkner) and I tried to learn from that. In general, I’m more influenced by American fiction than British fiction. I’m not sure why that is – possibly because American fiction is more audacious and large-scale (although that’s a big generalization of course).
There’s a kind of modernism to the book - i.e. your descriptions and dialogue are straightforward, as is the violence – and it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a historical novel, despite the obviously historical setting. Is that an intended effect, and what opportunities did you see in choosing that medium?
One of the things I like about writing historical fiction is that (paradoxically perhaps) it feels quite free compared to writing about the present. Because no one knows what it was actually like to work on an Arctic whaling ship in the 1850s, once you’ve done the research, you know as much about the facts as anyone can, and then you are able to use your imagination to fill in the gaps and create a plausible and interesting world. Because it’s impossible to get certain things (like dialogue, for example) ‘right’—I worry less about verisimilitude than about creating a convincing and compelling style. Maybe that’s part of the reason The North Water feels different from some historical novels.
Some might say that the book presents a grim world view - religion certainly doesn’t provide your characters much practical relief – but there’s humor there, albeit black, if you’re receptive to it. Was that intentional, or should I seek professional help?
My first novel was a comic novel, so I certainly feel comfortable with writing comedy. I think you’re right, there are definitely comic moments in The North Water. It’s quite dark, gruesome comedy, but it’s in there. Also, to risk another large generalisation, I’d say all good novels, however serious, have some element of comedy in them (even if it’s small) – a novel that entirely lacks a sense of humor is probably going to feel quite limited and narrow by the end.
As far as villains go, not many are viler than Henry Drax, or as well named. Did you have any specific inspiration(s) for the character?
I think of Drax as being a monster as much as a villain, in that he’s motivated by primitive instincts more than by personal ambition or hatred or desire. He’s essentially an animal – he lives in the present moment, and he has no shame or guilt and no thought about the consequences of his actions. There is a crude and nihilistic, but also scarily plausible—even convincing—logic to the way he sees the world. He believes people act always and only out of self-interest, and if they claim to have any higher motivations they are lying. I hope and believe he’s wrong, but that worldview, although disturbing, isn’t entirely without merit, which I think is maybe one of the reasons he works as a character.
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