I’m a sucker for novels filled with vivid impressions. I’m awe-struck by a writer’s ability to create a sensory image which transports the reader to that place, that event, those people. "The North Water," by Ian McGuire, is one of those novels.

Part Call of the Wild, part Moby Dick, part The Odyssey, this novel provides the holy trinity of conflict: man’s struggle with his environment, man’s struggle with other men, and man’s struggle within himself. The plot follows the story’s protagonist, Dr. Sumner, as he attempts to resolve all these conflicts in his search for salvation. Sumner signs on as the physician on a Greenland whaling ship, the Volunteer, ostensibly as an eventual means of passage back home to England. But the reader senses that Sumner chooses to sail for the same reason the Volunteer’s captain does: “He has never liked the land . . . it is too certain, too solid, too sure of itself.” Everything Sumner is not.

27-year-old Sumner, an opium addict and ex-army surgeon, is running from his past: the atrocities he witnessed at the Siege of Delhi during the 1857 Indian rebellion and his unintentional part in them. But he can’t run fast enough or far enough. The Volunteer becomes the setting for further struggles — both physically and morally. It sails supposedly to hunt whales, but actually intends to stage an accident — that goes woefully wrong — that will allow the ship’s owner to collect insurance money.

Besides struggling with the harsh artic environment and his own unrelenting guilt and despair, Sumner must also confront the human antagonists that abound throughout the novel. It seems no character is trustworthy, moral, or even redeemable. So, the language used by McGuire to describe these characters and their behaviors is necessarily coarse and repulsive. But this is balanced by his evocative descriptions of the whale hunt and the landscape. “The whale’s back looks from Sumner’s aerie like a sunken island, a grainy volcanic hump of rock peeping from the waves.” The iceberg “grinds against the floe and spits up house-size rafts of ice like a swarf from the jaws of a lathe.”

Chapter 5 includes McGuire’s stunning depiction of Sumner’s fall, during a seal hunt, into the frigid water between two shifting ice floes and his attempt to pull himself out. How does a writer describe, in such detail, this experience without having actually gone through it himself? The passage is absolutely transcendent.

Perhaps McGuire unwittingly comments on the art of writing early in the novel when the Volunteer’s amoral harpooner, Henry Drax, contemplates man’s use of words: “words are just noises in a certain order and he can use them any way he wishes.” Certainly, for McGuire in this novel, he has put those “noises” in just the right order to create a compelling and beautifully written novel.

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