The brutal and poetic lovechild of Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy, The North Water is a beautiful gut-punch of a book that, strangely, seems both to rush past in a blur and to linger at the same time. But neither of those are bad things.
McGuire’s descriptions here are beyond vivid. His prose paints the world in bright, nauseating strokes. We see every open sore, every bruise and cut, and we smell the shit and sweat and blood spilled. Nothing is left out and nothing shied away from, and I loved this about it. Its lack of shyness might be seen as gratuitous by some but its depiction not only of an ugly time period (and trade), but of the darker recesses of human nature, is unrelenting in its honesty.
It stumbles savagely between thriller, existential musing and survival story but never quite manages to commit to any one thing for too long. I liked this about it. Why should a book be just one particular thing? The novel smashes through every framework with such energy and passion and poetry that you won’t care – hell, you won’t have time – to stop and calculate the speed. It covers a lot of ground but it also bores deep.
I think that perhaps it falters a little at the end, and is more concerned with the random knot of events than a carefully plaited plot, but this plays into the deeper elements McGuire explores. There’s a kind of nihilism at work here, in the landscapes and characters, a workmanlike practicality to proceedings. The moment-to-moment lives of these dirty, brittle characters are the thread here. Nobody’s really a good – or at least pure, or even innocent – person, but nobody could be in the world McGuire depicts, and that’s kind of the point. As one of the characters says, “It is a grave mistake to think too much, he reminds himself, a grave mistake. Life will not be puzzled out, or blathered into submission, it must be lived through, survived, in whatever fashion a man can manage.”