Bookclub Reads The North Water by Ian McGuire

Last night – yes, this is a last minute post! – my Toronto book club discussed Ian McGuire’s The North Water. The novel has been highly acclaimed – named a Best Book of the Year by Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, New Statesman, Publishers Weekly, and Chicago Public Library – and long or short-listed for many awards including the Man-Booker prize.

It’s a story about whaling in the 1850s. “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.”

Almost everyone loved it. I was the exception.

McGuire’s writing is superb. Each sentence carefully constructed for maximum impact. The plot builds and builds, one crisis after another, to create a compelling story, the group said. Readers are transported in time and space – gritty streets of England, the horror of the siege of Delhi (which the main character experienced before signing up as ship’s surgeon), the grime, toil, terror, and chaos of conditions on board a whaling ship, the unsavoury characters who chose that life. McGuire selects words like a poet. He builds not just a story but an experience.

What then was my problem?

My problem was its excessively vile descriptions – based on last night, these appealed to the rest of the group but for me they detracted from the story. A few examples:

“He takes a piece of lint padding and presses it against the wound, then makes a brief incision with the lancet. A green-pink mixture of blood and pus spills out and soaks into the padding. Sumner presses harder and the wound exudes yet more of the foul liquid.”

“He stops, groans, then leans over and vomits out gobbets of half-digested seal meat onto the frozen snow beneath. He feels a sharp pain like a lance jabbing in his stomach and releases an involuntary squirt of shit into his trousers … his beard is packed now with saliva and bile and fragments of tooth-ground meat.”

“In the night the priest has a fierce bout of diarrhea. Sumner is woken by the sounds of loud groans and splattering. The cabin air is dense with the velvet reek of liquid feces.”

“As soon as he pierces the cavity wall, a pint or more of foul and flocculent pus, turbid and pinkish grey, squirts unhindered out of the newly made breach, spattering across the table and coating Sumner’s hands and forearms. The roaring stench of excrement and decay instantly fills the cabin.”

Sumner has just tracked and killed a bear in the frozen north. He has gutted it and drunk from a “hot pool of black liquid – blood, urine, bile” inside the cavity. “His beard is stiff with ursine gore, both hands are dyed dark red, and the arms of his peacoat are soaked up toe the elbows. His mouth, teeth, and throat are caked with blood, both animal and human. The tip of his tongue is missing.”

Five examples. The novel contains many, many more. For me, it was too much. I would have preferred McGuire to have left more to my imagination, to be less “in my face”.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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6 Responses

  1. For me, these vivid descriptions just add to the grim mood of the novel. Yes, they are disgusting, but many things that happen, and some of the characters also, are disgusting.

    1. I.e. for me, I don’t feel a writer should avoid tackling the horrid bits. They are also part of life, part of the world being described.

      1. Many thanks for adding your perspective! Reading is such a personal pursuit. As they say, a reader completes the novel. Definitely a grim mood in the story.

  2. In limited quantity, and if it serves the story, I can stomach such gritty prose. However, if it’s overdone, the purpose becomes (in my opinion) more to shock/disgust the reader than to tell a story. I don’t care for that.

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