In the lead up to the announcement of the winner of our first Glass Bell award, we're going to be talking a bit about why we enjoyed each book on the short list. Today we'll be talking about The North Water:
A luckless whaling captain, a disgraced Irish surgeon formerly of the British army, and a savage killer all set sail for the whaling grounds in the titular north waters of the arctic circle, backed by a shady financier. ‘The North Water’ is a tense, brutal and gripping story. McGuire is unflinching in describing the brutal business of killing whales. We begin in Hull in 1859 in the waning days of the whale trade, and within twelve pages the tone of the story is set; this world is grim and not for the faint of heart.
The unforgiving and merciless environment we venture into is reflected in the type of men who make the journey. Whaling ships attract desperate men after money, offering payment after a successful voyage, and a whaling ship with an unlucky captain attracts even worse; such is the captain and crew of the Volunteer, whose journey we follow north. The men are as hard as the conditions they face and as violent as the work they do.
Aboard the Volunteer, amidst the ice of the freezing waters, the tension builds with each passing page. Alliances are forged and secrets revealed. The killer strikes. Marred by these events, the expedition limps on inexorably to isolation, betrayal and disaster as the crew search for a bigger prize in the frozen waters of the north.
It’s bleak. It’s dark. It’s mesmeric. I devoured it in a single day. With every twist and turn in the story, I found I just had to keep turning the page. Told in a direct and sombre voice, dark humour is sprinkled throughout; as the unlucky whaling captain growls how there had better be ice in the north as he prepares to set sail, the financier replies, “Oh, there’s always ice, we both know that. And if there’s one man alive who has the true knack for finding it, I believe it’s you.”