LitStack Recs: Dept. of Speculation & The North Water

The North Water, by Ian McGuire

I’m not sure what it is about arctic adventures that has me captivated. Whether it be stories about running the Iditarod (Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen), a chilling psychological thriller amongst the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada (The Cage by Audrey Schulman) or an absolutely scarier-than-heck tale where a mysterious, bloodthirsty monster makes a harrowing survival story even more horrifying (The Terror by Dan Simmons), I find myself totally engrossed despite the bitter cold harshness of the tales’ environment.

Maybe it’s because I live in a northern climate, and have at times experienced a cold that is dangerous for the unprepared or cavalier, when you stand outside and the frigid temperatures whisk the breath out of your open mouth, and the snow piles up so high that you feel like a rat in a maze if you leave your house. I even once found myself – for thankfully a very short time – in a cold weather survival situation that still is seared deep in my memory, not that I was really ever in that much danger, but because I could get a glimpse of what it would be like to be in that kind of danger.

Nevertheless, I love books that pit men (and women) against the unforgiving arctic elements. My latest experience was Ian McGuire’s new novel, The North Water, published by Henry Holt and Company in March 2016. It’s the story of the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaling ship bound for the hunting fields in the Arctic Circle. (Need I add “ill fated” to the description? No, that probably goes without saying.)
On board the Volunteer is a captain with a cursed reputation after losing his last ship and most of his men, and a rough yet capable first mate with barely a shred of decency to him. There is a first-time ship’s doctor with personal and professional secrets, an ex-army medic from Scotland who still has nightmares from the Siege of Dehli where his life took a horrifying turn. And there is a harpooner who is a brutal, brutish, remorseless monster.

The action is tense, and devastating, as one might expect. (Surprisingly, there is also some hope mixed in there, which is refreshing in these tales, which often are comprised of harrowing situation after harrowing situation.) But in The North Water, the atmosphere starts off dark and dank and ugly, from page one, before the crew has even reported for duty. Yet it also feels genuine. The 19th century could be a brutal time for those on the bottom rungs of the ladder, regardless of where they existed, and it makes it a bit more understandable on why men would join the crew of a whaling ship despite the danger, despite the potential for unforeseen disaster. Indeed, once the ship heads out to open water, we glimpse the first freshness in the book. Of course, it doesn’t last.

The journey would have been hard enough if all the men had to overcome was the elements. But there is so much more stacked against the crew in this voyage, not the least of which is human greed and debauchery. But just when you think you know what’s going to happen, the story takes a different turn, or you see the narrative from a different angle, and you stay engaged even when it seems like all hope is lost.

The North Water is a great read – even if you hate the snow and cold. Just make sure you read it now, before the frost comes, or worse.

—Sharon Browning