The North Water, by Ian McGuire
There are numerous stories out there playing on the trope of a self-styled mystic aboard a ship at sea predicting some ominous thing that may or may not come true, and Ian McGuire works that ground as if virgin soil. Patrick Sumner is an ex-British army surgeon fresh from the Indian Rebellion of 1857. He’s been booted from the army for leaving his station in a time of warfare, and while he’s waiting for an inheritance to fructify, he joins the crew of a whaler, The Volunteer, bound for the Arctic Circle. One of the crew, Henry Drax, is a murderer and worse, and he’s rightfully accused of a shipboard murder. Another of the upset crew voices a prophecy that, because of the crime they’ll all die there except for Sumner, who ferrets out Drax’s crime and who will die in another place and manner.
The story, told in present tense and largely from the point of view of Sumner, as the prophecy seems to come true, follows the crew through a spate of whaling, then of survival. McGuire’s depiction of the inhospitable arctic scenery takes on the import of a character here, and Drax’s implied presence is never far away from the crew’s – and Sumner’s – consciousness.
Irony is never to be denied in such stories, and what seems barren and debilitating to the Volunteer’s crew is natural and rather inviting to the native Esquimauxs of this clime.
The writing is elegant, sometimes approaching purple, but the power of McGuire’s narrative prose cannot be denied.
The ending owes something of a debt to Guy de Maupassant, an obvious sleight of hand that will leave some readers unsatisfied. However, it will be classroom fodder for literature students for quite some time.
My rating: 18 of 20 stars
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