Mostly I find nineteenth-century Arctic shipwreck stories too familiar (even though – or because? – it’s a very particular category). One of my thesis novels, Afterlands, was all Arctic shipwreck all the time. And I must have read and re-read that novel a dozen times. Too many times to read much about whale blubber without shuddering with concern that someone might ask me about the significance of the whale. or the blubber. But how often do we read in this niche category? Obviously not often. Unless you’re someone who re-reads Moby Dick. In which case you are someone with other kinds of (whale blubber) problems.
I digress. So Ian McGuire’s The North Water does feature a whaling ship, and it’s not too much of a spoiler to say it also includes some shipwreck. But what makes it a more interesting novel than a straight up man-versus-nature epic of food rations and frostbite, is the inclusion of a traditional antagonist-protagonist relationship in the form of the psychopathic Henry Drax and the opium addled, and/but incredibly sincere, ship doctor, Patrick Sumner, respectively. While Drax is (to my mind anyway) a little flat in his representation as only ever driven by bodily desire, Sumner is complex and interesting enough. Together they make for a neat dynamic. And then you add the whaling boat and the shipwreck and the ice and the etc and it turns into something mostly fun to read.
S. picked it up and read a few pages (and almost combusted because he never reads fiction) and decided that the writing wasn’t very good. I think he’s wrong, but I would agree that it strays closer to the border with pulp fiction than literary, but it’s not the case that you feel like you’re reading something trashy.
I’m not overly enthusiastic about this novel one way or the other. It did show up on the best of 2016 lists and offers a worthy distraction if you’re travelling for the holidays (or are the sort of person – like me – that treasures holiday time
more as much for the time to read as for the family visiting). Maybe I’m wrong. If so strike me down and put me on an ice flow to starve or to be eaten by a bear because those are the only options ever.