[Book Review] “The North Water” (Ian McGuire) – Engrossing Tale; Difficult to Digest!


Author: Ian McGuire

Genre: Historical Fiction / Adventure

Year of Publication: 2016

Pages: 352

ISBN: 1627795944 (ISBN13: 9781627795944)


In the mid of 19th Century, when the Whale Oil business was going on a decline, a group of rugged men is hired by a businessman to give it a final push by going on a voyage to Northern waters to find and hunt the whales. Lead by Captain Brownlee, the ship travels north under clouds of conspiracy. The ship’s surgeon; a war veteran named Sumner is a misfit among the group which gets hit by internal betrayals and natural calamities beyond their capacity.

This violent adventure of misfortune and survival is an engrossing account of what fate awaits each member of this unfortunate group.

“He is not ashamed of what he has been or done: a man makes his mistakes, he tells them, a man suffers as he must suffer, but the readiness is all.”  – Ian McGuire (quoted from “The North Waters”)

Our Rating



Rave reviews … Promising synopsis and Critical Acclaim received by this book kept on tempting me to read it. I finally submitted to the temptation as it’s been quite a while since I’ve read a decent Historical Adventure which is not based on wars and racism. The idea of joining a nineteenth century mob of rowdy voyagers to gather some whale oil among a few conspiracies and calamities, sounded good.

This is not the first story about a whale hunting voyage gone bad; we’ve had a number of classics where similar eras have been narrated with almost similar settings. The first and foremost analogy that pops up in mind is “Moby Dick”. So what was so unique about this book that got it noticed to such an extent? What has Ian McGuire done to give this adventure an identity of its own?

The traditional hallmarks of this genre have been replaced with original alternatives which serve to be the USP of the book

As it turns out the answer is quite obvious. All the previous books of similar genre have a moral to teach and they had always been about “Good vs Evil”. These traditional ingredients which have always been the hallmarks of this genre have been replaced with the following 2 alternatives…

1- There are no specific moral lessons to take out from this story. The book doesn’t preach … it only narrates a story … as simple as that!

2- The “Good vs Evil” has been replaced with “The Lesser Evil vs The Bigger Evil”. Though a certain character is pin-pointed as the main antagonist, yet the others which could’ve been soulful and God-Fearing protagonists…are no saints by any means. Even the noblest of them is much darker than grey.

I have never read a book this violent, yet this violence is a big compliment to its author

With these presumably original dimensions as his USP, the author sinks the story in blood, gore and shit. When I say “shit”…I don’t mean the symbolic miseries that happen in life…when I say shit…i mean the real abdominal excretions! Similarly when I say “blood and gore”I literally mean A LOT of BLOOD and GORE!!! I have never read a book this violent; I have never read a book which actually made me twitch with the foul smells of its filthy and bloody descriptions.

While at one hand this barbaric and crude violence becomes quite disturbing for the reader, on the other hand this goes as a big compliment to the author for creating such thoroughly detailed atmosphere and transporting the reader to those filthy ships and those impossible to survive circumstances.

On the same notes, the brutally honest crudeness of all the characters and their barbaric instincts might reduce the comfort level of the reader but it is bound to raise the respect for author’s focus and determination to present the story without any commercial compromises.

Despite the basic originality of the story, the execution brings back a lot of similarities with other books and movies

***Spoiler Ahead***

Despite this commendable originality in the basic story setup, the execution sometimes produces alarming resemblances with the stories already read and movies already watched. [ especially a few similarities are so beyond coincidence; for example, Sumner’s metaphysical connection with the bear revives the connection between Pi and the Tiger in “Life of Pi” … The scene where Sumner hides inside the bowels of a bear is sinfully similar to a scene in Leonardo Decaprio’s “The Revenant (2015)”… the crew and atmosphere of the ship and the descriptions related to weather conditions not only have a continuous recall from the classic tale “Moby Dick” but also has obvious similarities to the tale’s 2015 cinematic adaptation “In the Heart of the Sea”.

Contrary to the smooth flow throughout most of the book, the ending chapters are extremely abrupt and disjointed.

Whereas I admire McGuire’s success to narrate the story so effectively, I have some serious reservations with the last two chapters of the book. A narrative that was going quite smoothly got multiple abrupt thrusts during the final chapters. It seems that he himself got so fed-up of all the violence and obscenity that he decided to conclude the story earlier than he had planned. I might be totally wrong in my perception, but I would’ve definitely preferred a gradual conclusion rather than the abruptness.

Final Word

Overall, its an interesting tale very effectively told. But you got to have a stomach of steel if you want to complete this book and actually enjoy it. If you can handle the intensity of the unlimited violence and filth, you would really end up enjoying this book. Otherwise you might end up tearing its pages out and using them as vomit bags (at least twice in every chapter)!


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