More blood! Goodness, gracious this is a gore-fest of a longlist! Ian McGuire’s new novel, his second, is set at the point at which whaling and whale products are being replaced by drilling for oil and its associated product: petroleum.
The North Water begins with a wanton murder and the violent rape of a child, so far so terrible. We join the whaling ship, the Volunteer with a strange and unlikeable crew, including Drax and the ship’s surgeon, Sumner, a man with a past. The ship then collects a further cohort of Shetlanders and other whaling men and sails out to sea.
Meanwhile the ship’s owner, Baxter, safely on shore, has ideas for this voyage that do not necessarily include the health and safety of his ship’s crew.
The body count climbs, by violent death and by accident, until in the end there are few survivors, but they are the ones that count.
However, in spite of the necessary and unnecessary violence, this is a thrilling and beautiful book both to hold and to read.
Ian McGuire uses language that is rich, varied and fully of unusual and evocative words: stelliferous, prelibation, chthonic, umbrous; the sense of place and weather is a wonder, especially at sea; the characterisation fully formed and believable and served without mercy, exposing their frailties and strengths in equal measure.
Whaling was a bloody and unforgiving business, associated now with environmental disaster, we cannot see it dispassionately. At the time though, blubber and whalebone kept Society in lights, candles and corsets. The descriptions of the killing and flensing of seals and whales is visceral, but gripping. It does not need a reading of Moby Dick, to know how very dangerous it was.
I strongly recommend this book, I am not yet backing it as a winner but for sheer descriptive power and pacey narrative, it has been one of the best books so far.
The next book on the random pile is Deborah Levy‘s new novel Hot Milk. This is another choice similar to a book on the longlist that I have already read.
In My Name is Lucy Barton we have a mother and daughter situation that is being resolved through revived memories: the daughter in hospital being visited by her estranged mother; in Hot Milk we have a daughter whose life is on hold being persecuted by her mother’s phantom illnesses, they are seeking a final cure in a health clinic in Spain. But aside from the reversal of roles, there are other similarities.
Deborah Levy is already a well know and highly respected author, and she does not misfire with this novel, even though I did not personally like it very much. There is humour and nastiness in equal measure and one alternates between exasperation at the feebleness of the daughter Sophie, and the enfeeblement of the hypochondriacal mother, Rose – who may really be ill as sometimes she cannot walk, but while she claims her legs are numb can feel the scratch of a cat.
It is also full of quirky and mildly repellent characters, and strangely awkward situations. This adds layers to the story of the child-[s]mother and mother[ing]-child. All the time though, one is supremely aware of the intense heat, the azure sky, the sand and the medusa-ridden sea. It is a strangely powerful picture.