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2016 Man Booker: The North Water by Ian McGuire

North Water

Next up in our 2016 Man Booker Longlist marathon is a book that many of the judges were excited to read: The North Water by Ian McGuire. Turns out that it has been our most polarizing book and one that generated a lot of back discussion between our panel members. Keep reading to find out what our panel of judges thought about the book and let us know with which side you agree most.

Note: Thank you to Henry Holt & Company for providing our panel with review copies for this feature in exchange for our honest reviews

Ian McGuire (credit Wolfgang Webster)

Author Ian McGuire. Photo credit: Wolfgang Webster

The North Water by Ian McGuire
Published: 2016
Judges: Jen, Book Worm, Nicole, Kate, Andrew
Find your copy here: The North Water

Synopsis (from Amazon): A nineteenth-century whaling ship sets sail for the Arctic with a killer aboard in this dark, sharp, and highly original tale that grips like a thriller.

Behold the man: stinking, drunk, and brutal. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the rich hunting waters of the arctic circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money, and no better option than to sail as the ship’s medic on this violent, filthy, and ill-fated voyage.

In India, during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which man can stoop. He had hoped to find temporary respite on the Volunteer, but rest proves impossible with Drax on board. The discovery of something evil in the hold rouses Sumner to action. And as the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic winter, the fateful question arises: who will survive until spring?

With savage, unstoppable momentum and the blackest wit, Ian McGuire’s The North Water weaves a superlative story of humanity under the most extreme conditions.

Jen’s Review: I generally don’t like books that are heavy on the violence and there is no denying that The North Water is an incredibly violent, dark, and intense book. The first chapter alone includes a murder, assault, and rape. I should have hated it, but I found it oddly compelling and while it was filled with some pretty graphic descriptions of animal slaughter (they are Whalers after all) and violence toward men, there were glimmers (small as they may be) of hope throughout. Colm Toibin, when writing a review for the New York Times, described the book as one that feels like “an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.” It’s a pretty astute description.

Now on to my ratings. The book is well-written and has a fast moving plot with some dramatic elements, philosophical elements, an a pretty satisfying conclusion. There is no question that the book is meticulously researched and there are times when the imagery is so vivid that you can almost taste the salt water on your tongue. Readers should be prepared for the fact that the imagery is equally vivid when it comes to the violence. The men are Whalers and their job is to kill a variety of animals. McGuire doesn’t hold back in his descriptions of these tasks — there is a lot of blood splattering all over the place. But it’s accurate to the world that he is portraying. While the protagonist is complex and well developed, I did find the secondary characters to be a little stereotyped and extreme in their sheer evil. Is Drax intended to symbolize the devil? Is he just meant to be taken at face value as a violent sociopath? The book is fairly original in its focus and content but no other new elements (e.g., narrative style, basic themes) stood out to make it particularly unique so I had to take off a few points for that. Finally, I found myself surprisingly engaged considering that I normally dislike very violent books. I did have to skim over some parts but overall I felt captivated by the book.

Writing quality: 4.5/5
Originality 3/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot Development: 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 15.5/20

Nicole’s Review:  I did not enjoy this book AT ALL.  It had the harshness of a Cormac McCarthy novel, but with the added benefit of punctuation.  Despite viscerally disliking this book, I have to say it was a good book.  Which I know is perplexing.  I’m curling my lip even writing this (but I did just finish an exceptionally gross part) and I don’t feel in any way edified by having read it, and yet I don’t have a lot of criticism about it.  It’s vile and violent and I usually love dark books, but this is a darkness that just escaped me.  Perhaps it was partially the coldness.

This is not a book for animal lovers, that is for sure.  But it was kind of fascinating too.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 3/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot complexity 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 0/2
Total 12/20

Book Worm’s Review: Unlike Jen, I love thrillers and while she found the opening chapter to be a bit violent, for me this was quite tame. I think that is a nod to the time period the book is set in — graphic violence like the kind in modern thrillers would not have suited this book.

First of let me say I did enjoy the book, but I was not blown away by it. The graphic details of whaling life reminded me of Moby Dick (although they were thankfully a lot briefer) and a lot of the storyline reminded me of other books or films I have seen so I have been harsh in the originality points.

I enjoyed watching Sumner grow as a character and like the way the fight between “good” and “evil” developed although to be fair both characters were varying shades of grey. I also liked the way all the crimes committed were believable for the time period and that they were carried out in a realistic manner.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 2.5/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot complexity 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total 13.5/20

Kate’s Review: This tale of murder, chicanery, and just all-around awfulness on a 19th century whaling voyage to the North Atlantic is equal parts disturbing, horrific, appalling, vulgar, scatological, gory and ultimately enthralling.  It is like a novelization of a Hieronymous Bosch masterpiece.  The dialogue is raunchy but real and I am sure that life on a whaler or in a whaling village was every bit as disgusting as McGuire portrays it.  I had the most trouble dealing with the thread of animal cruelty and confess that I pulled back and tried to skim through those scenes as quickly as possible. None of the characters was likable but I couldn’t put it down.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 3/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot complexity 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total 15/20

Andrew’s Review: This is not an exceptional book. It is definitely an entertaining read that moves quickly and appears to be excellently researched. However, the writing itself did not stand out and the plot seemed to be a mash-up of Moby Dick and Shackleton’s “adventure.” My main critiques:

  1. A heavy reliance on violence and profanity. I’m no prude, but I believe there are more creative ways to develop atmosphere and characters than relying on blood and the word “fuck.”
  2. Many of the characters are one-dimensional. Otto and the priest are true believers. Drax is Id or the Devil. Baxter is an evil robber baron. There’s no depth to these characters. No shades of gray. Sumner himself is rather thinly drawn. This tale is ostensibly about his redemption, but I never felt myself rooting for him. Or really caring if he achieved redemption.
  3. The third act is a jolt. Sumner is transformed, but I didn’t find his transformation credible or satisfying. I can’t really get into why without some serious spoilers.

I’d recommend this book for its entertainment value (if you can stomach the gore), but didn’t find it to be one of the better books I’ve read in the last few years.

Writing quality: 3/5
Originality 3/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot complexity 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total 11/20

Average score across all panelists: 13.5/20

Ranking of Longlist books to date:
1. The Sellout (17)
2. My Name is Lucy Barton (16.13)
3. The North Water (13.5)
4. Eileen (12.5)

Want to try it for yourself? You can buy your copy here: The North Water. As you can see, we were pretty split on this book so we recommend you try the book for yourself and then let us know with which side you agree most.

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? Does it deserve to make the Man Booker Shortlist? Do you plan on reading this book? 

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. mootastic1 #

    Interesting. I will still be reading it, but my expectatations have been scaled back. But really, you had me at Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 22, 2016
    • I can wait to see what you think. I wonder if you and Nicole will be aligned on this one? Probably, but I will be curious to see for sure.

      Like

      August 22, 2016
  2. One thing that drives me bananas … in time period books like this when characters say “What the F*%&” … I think WTF is a more recent grammatical invention, in fact, I don’t even think it was around in the 60’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 22, 2016
    • I’m trying to look this up. I think it may go back further than I had previously thought. The word “f*%%” goes back as far as 1500s and was found in a Scottish poem in the mid-1500s. Then there was a long stretch when it was out of print due to obscenity. James Joyce dropped a few f-bombs in Ulysses in 1920s. But as to the specific term WTF I can’t find much about its origin or common usage.i suspect you are right.

      Like

      August 22, 2016
  3. Tracy S #

    I’m torn on this one- I used to have a higher tolerance for violence, but I don’t know how much I could stand, especially against animals. If it makes the short list, I’ll get it from the library. Otherwise, I may pass.

    Like

    August 22, 2016
  4. I’m firmly in the camp of being totally engrossed by this book. It’s not doing anything different in terms of narrative technique so I wonder what made it special enough to put on the longlist. But as an example of a thriller I thought it did a great job. True that there wasn’t much character development beyond Sumner but the setting and period was handled brilliantly I thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 23, 2016
  5. This is the one I’m most interested in out of the longlist. I’ll add it to my library wish list.

    Like

    August 23, 2016
    • I think you may like it but I will be curious to see what you think.

      Like

      August 23, 2016
  6. Scott #

    Cold, brutal, and relentless. Great writing, beautiful prose, and a few unforgettable characters. McGuire’s steady gray cloud over a whaling expedition in the mid-19th century manages to inspire the modern reader to question the timeless morals and ethics of humanity. Is the evil Drax (whose actions are reprehensible but whose survival instincts are admirable) any better or worse than the heartless and greedy businessman, Baxter? In between these two extremes is our hero, Sumner, whose miraculous adventures become, toward the end when many fates are served, almost Christ-like. So far, it’s my favorite of the Booker longlist, and the only one I’ll read again.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 24, 2016
    • I agree that the book raised some interesting moral questions. It won’t be one I reread because it was too brutal for my tastes. I did think it was a good book but as you can probably tell, I was on the “like it” side of the debate. I imagine this will be one of the books on the list that gets very mixed reviews with strong reactions on both sides

      Like

      August 24, 2016
  7. Wow, this is so interesting. I’m not a fan of violence but it doesn’t make me not like a book unless it’s just more than I can handle . . . And this plot sounds fascinating. I know I’ll never make it through all the nominees so it’s very helpful, having you all help me decide which I really want to try. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    August 24, 2016

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