Patrick Sumner is a surgeon who takes a job on a whaling ship. He is down on his luck. Discharged from the army with a limp and a story hiding in a locked chest, Sumner is also an orphan who was adopted and trained by the local doctor turned alcoholic. To top it all, Sumner is now addicted to Laudanum.
Heading for the same ship is Henry Drax, a man ruled by thirst and hunger, sometimes for drink, or for sex, or for blood. The North Water puts the two men in the same ship, holes them up on the same bleak stretches of ice, and lets us meditate on what it is to be human: do you follow your own desires, or do you question them?
The North Water is a delightfully gut-ridden story, no desire, hope, thought or feeling is left out. We follow dreams, we consider the nature of the soul and we watch men slaughter seals, whales and each other.
I read with a feverish enjoyment and could have continued to read for though the story is thrilling and dramatic, the novel isn’t about what happens but whether or not it is ever possible to judge between men and to decide what is luck and what is design. That kind of conscious, vivacious writing is as addictive as Laudanum. (I also have to confess a love of reading about bleak landscapes precisely because of the way they strip humanity to its essence.)
I can see that this wouldn’t be a novel for everyone. It is violent and bleak but it is also beautiful and Sumner is a character it is very hard not to like.
It is historical fiction but this isn’t about showing off historical knowledge, this is about showing how the world works, the importance of luck in where you were born, who you were born to, who you are connected to. It’s a sad world that has much to say about the darker edges of human commerce. It makes me want to read Incredible Bodies and whatever Ian McGuire writes next.