The men of The North Water – and this is a novel populated almost exclusively by men – are drunkards, liars, thieves, rapists and murderers.
In fact, the villain of the piece – the deliciously deranged Henry Drax – is all of the above; an animal governed and driven by his urges and completely devoid of conscience or empathy. He’s wonderful.
The book tells the tale of The Volunteer, a 19th century whaling ship that embarks on a doomed Arctic mission. It’s a tale of man versus nature, as all whaling books are; but it’s also a tale of man versus man, as main protagonist Patrick Sumner – a disgraced surgeon but fundamentally good man – finds himself in a sort of Manichean battle with Drax.
It’s a literary thriller, beautifully-written but fast-paced. It’s dark and violent, not quite so blood-drenched as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien or harrowing as The Revenant but more fun than both. It has shades of Conrad too, and Jack London. And, of course, Herman Melville, although here the whales themselves are entirely ancillary to the story – the real beast is aboard the ship.
There is some curious pacing towards the end and Drax is almost too good a villain: Sumner and the other characters pale by comparison. Nonetheless, a fine novel.
Next: more whales