Sunday, February 4, 2018

Exit, Pursued By A Bear: The North Water by Ian McGuire

"Hull is other people" is a nice gag from a Christopher Hitchens review of Philip Larkin's letters that beautifully sums up The North Water. The book begins in a grim Hull dockyard sometime in the late 1850's with a rape and murder by one Henry Drax who is taking ship on a Hull whaler bound for Greenland. Drax is a harpooner by trade who boards the good ship Volunteer looking for opportunities of every kind. Also on the Volunteer is the Irish ship's surgeon Patrick Sumner who went to medical school in Belfast but who through unlucky circumstance has ended up in Hull. Hull and Belfast then (another echo of Philip Larkin). 
The North Water is a great read by a new author (at least new to me) Ian McGuire. The characterisations are superb and the language is often very beautiful. The story moves quickly too. It is, as Jerry Lee Lewis liked to say: no filler, all killer. The reviews on the cover are from Martin Amis and Hilary Mantel and the novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize. I liked it very much too but, and here's the rub, in many ways its really just a Patrick O'Brian novel for people too snobby to read Patrick O'Brian. A philosophical Irish ship's surgeon who is addicted to opium? Check. Encounters with whales and whaling? Check. A shipwreck on an ice flow? Check. A crew divided against itself with a maniac onboard? Check. Climbing inside a bearskin to survive? Check. Return passage on a ship called the Truelove? Check. Now what Mr McGuire is doing here is called a homage and I admire that but for those of you (and you know who you are) who are too stuck up to read the source material I'll point you anyway to Desolation Island/Post Captain/The Far Side of the World/The Wine Dark Sea/The Truelove which are the Aubrey-Maturin novels that cover this material. 
I'm not knocking The North Water. It's a wonderful book. I am knocking those people who knock Patrick O'Brian as a mere romancier. He's as good a writer as McGuire and he got there first.