Ian McGuire's Whaling Novel Thrills and Chills

By Ian McGuire
Henry, Holy & Company, 255 pages.
Ian McGuire @ReadingsBooks #northwater 

Pirates are usually the poster children for the reprobate life, but the view that comes through in British writer Ian McGuire's realist novel is that 19th century whalers make those scurvy dogs look like choirboys. His is a corrective to popular views of whaling that fall into one of two stereotypes, the romantic and the honorably tragic. If you ever visit the informative New Bedford Whaling Museum or step aboard Mystic Seaport's Charles W. Morgan, you'll learn a lot about whaling and its hardships, but the overall impression is that of intrepid lords of the foam commanding crews of ship-born industrial workers during the golden age of sail. The tragic view comes closer to the mark. Chapels called Seamen's Bethels were a standard feature of fishing and whaling towns—places where considerably more memorial services than christenings took place. One estimate holds that as many as 20,000 whalers died at sea before the turn of the 20th century.

Tragedy is tragedy, but we often stereotype it as well. Think of exaggerated paintings of saw-toothed whales chewing up hapless sailors, or of crews being led to their doom by mad captains like Herman Melville's Ahab. Ian McGuire has a different take on why a whaler's life was often short and brutish: many of them were brutes. Many who 'read' Moby Dick skim or skip didactic chapters to get at the more thrilling material. But if you take the time to delve into the chapter titled "The Try-Works," you'll quickly learn that it took a taste for blood, filth, violence, and stink to stomach (literally) a whaler's life. In The North Water, Cetacean hunters fall into two categories: the ones with something to hide and those so far beyond the margins that they know longer bother with social pretenses.

The novel is set in 1859, a time in which whaling is on its last fins—a victim of over-harvesting and obsolescence occasioned by cheaper coal gas and petroleum. When Captain Arthur Barlowe agrees to skipper The Volunteer, he does so with the foreknowledge that it may well be its last voyage. As it is, he's headed for the Canadian Arctic pretty late in the season as that's where, if anywhere, sperm whales can be taken (as well as seals, foxes, and polar bears). In the waning days of the trade, recruitment was even more from the fetid bottom of the barrel. Barlowe's crew consists mostly of poverty-stricken Shetland islanders and dodgy characters scrounged from English ports of call. The curiosity is greenhorn ship surgeon, Patrick Sumner, who formerly served with the British army in India. What could possibly motivate such a learned man to give up the warmth of the South Asian sun for the gray waters of the North Atlantic and the ice of the Arctic? The rest are a rank (physically and morally) collection of drunkards, drug-addled fools, buggerers, thieves, cutthroats, and those with more crabs in their groins than teeth in their heads.

On such a ship, Otto, the German Swedenborgian fatalist, passes for normal. Everyone seems to have an agenda: Sumner, Barlowe, ship owner Jacob Baxter, First Mate Michael Cavendish, amoral harpooner Henry Drax…. The problem is, none of the agendas match. McGuire's yarn is a good one, though it's decidedly not for the squeamish. Cruelty toward animals and one's fellow man are staples of The North Water; treachery, double cross, roguery, and degradation are subthemes. McGuire's description of the Arctic chills in various ways. He skillfully weaves many strands, develops complex characters, dabbles in foreshadowing, and brings matters to a satisfying conclusion without being as wordy as, well, Herman Melville. Nor does he sacrifice drama or intrigue for the sake of economy. In fact, in places The North Water is evocative of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, if I can be forgiven for substituting the barren Arctic for the lush Congo. By the time you've finished McGuire, you will have marooned all romantic notions of whaling on a Baffin Islands ice sheet.

Rob Weir

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