I first heard about The North Water when it was named one of The New York Times‘ best books of 2016, and when I found it in my favorite bookstore it had not one but two staff recommendations affixed to it on a prominent table. I was already sold by that point, but finding a blurb from Hilary Mantel on the jacket was icing on the cake. Still, I was nervous. When a book has that much hype, how can it do anything but let you down?
Short answer: it didn’t. I found The North Water to be imminently readable. It’s deep without being difficult–you could read it as a sort of psychological suspense thriller and be just as pleased as someone who looks for deeper meanings. I read it in January and now, eight months later, I still find myself thinking about some of McGuire’s description. He is both brutal and spare–packing a mean punch into a few well-chosen words. The North Water reminds me of Annie Proulx, another expert in unforgiving, sparse prose.
At its most basic level, The North Water pits a surgeon against a sailor. The surgeon, educated and thoughtful, represents all of the order human society seeks to bring to its citizens. He struggles to do right, and when he does wrong he is plagued by doubt and guilt. The sailor represents humans at their most primal level: selfish and violent and remorseless. Put on the same vessel, they pull the entire crew toward an inexorable confrontation.
Squeamish sorts will find The North Water difficult to get through. If you have the stomach, though, I would highly recommend you take this discomfiting journey.