If you choose to read The North Water by Ian McGuire you will be signing on for the last whaling voyage of the Volunteer to Greenland with Captain Brownlee and his crew. You will be traveling with a murderer and you will be a pawn in a plot to make the rich ship owner, named Baxter, richer. The world has discovered fossil fuels, oil and gas, and the market for whale oil has all but dried up. Baxter doesn’t want to lose any money in this energy transition and he has a plan.
I guarantee that Ian McGuire will show you the truest depths to which men can sink and that you will feel only barely better about his main character, Sumner, who has been signed on by Baxter as the ship’s doctor. (Perhaps there are good reasons these men are almost never referred to by their first names.) Sumner has fallen far and he is addicted to opium from his time as a medic in India. A ship’s doctor can order in a big supply of laudanum and stay out of the limelight and find himself with very light duties.
You may not make it through the first chapter, which is harsh and brutal, and even these two words are understatements. If you do there is a sorry tale to tell with implications for another transitional moment that our culture is going through right now with our need to shift away from fossil fuels. A lot of people think they stand to lose a lot of money and seem to be ready to do whatever they must to turn back the clock to keep their fortunes growing. Is what Baxter is doing any worse than what these 21st century billionaires seem prepared to do? Judge for yourself.
Of course Baxter’s plans for self-preservation do not call for him to actually get involved in any of the seamy details. Brownlee is in on the plan but no one in his crew realizes what he is up to. Why does he take the Volunteer north when all the other ships begin to head south? How many survive this ill-fated trip? How does Sumner end up reluctantly solving a murder mystery and exposing a man with no soul? With murders big and small all over the place is one villain any worse than the next? This story is in no way uplifting, but there are reasons to read it if you have the stomach for it. The North Water by Ian McGuire will set you to thinking. It reminds me of books by Joseph Conrad, and Cormac McCarthy, and Herman Melville because it is both brutal and meaty.