The North Water is a bloody, gripping thriller set on board a whaling ship

Ian McGuire's novel is a powerful story which refuses to romanticise the past – in contrast with another new whaling story, Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

High above Baffin Island, in the freezing waters of the Arctic Circle, men in a boat are attacked by a polar bear. They are hoping to trap a mother bear’s cub to sell to a zoo back in England; the mother bear has other ideas. It is Henry Drax who finally kills her, with only a boat spade and his demented will, standing in the rolling whaleboat to stab her in the heart with the shovel’s edge. He is not sorry to do it.

The air is filled with a foetid blast of butchery and excrement. Drax feels pleasure at this work, arousal, a craftsman’s sense of pride. Death, he believes, is a kind of making, a kind of building up. What was one thing, he thinks, is become something else.

Death is the making of The North Water, Ian McGuire’s bloody, gripping novel set in the middle of the 19th century aboard the Volunteer. She is a whale ship sailing from Hull to Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands, and finally up into the waters that – just a few years earlier – had swallowed up Sir John Franklin and his men as they searched in vain for the North-West Passage. Drax is the black-hearted villain of this book, a man of such calm wickedness that it is possible to believe, as some of his fellow crew members do, that he may be the Devil.

The North Water begins as it intends to go on, with a set piece demonstrating the depths of Drax’s depravity. Matters don’t improve from there. “Behold the man” is the book’s first sentence, a sidelong echo of the opening words of the greatest novel of the whale trade there ever was or will be: it takes courage for a writer to make such a move and McGuire has plenty of that.

The novel is a thriller in spite of itself; or rather, in spite of Drax’s opponent, a doctor called Patrick Sumner, who surprises himself by turning detective. Sumner is the kind of man who would like to look away from injustice but somehow finds he cannot; when it becomes apparent that a cabin boy is being abused, he takes action.

The story flows onward from there, with the relentless forward motion of an iceberg with the current. Drax is defined only by his terrible deeds but Sumner’s life story trickles out. A native of County Mayo, Ireland, he is 27 years old when he sets off with the Volunteer, an opium addict and a man disgraced: it was the perfidy of an officer called Corbyn that led to his court martial after the siege of Delhi. He believes that the voyage will provide a kind of redemption; at the end of the novel, the reader must decide if such a thing is possible.

Beware: this book is quite a ride. The violence is ghastly, the queasy sense of moral decay all-pervasive. McGuire makes Quentin Tarantino look like Jane Austen: the gory pictures are even more disturbing because they exist inside your head instead of on a screen. The language has a harsh, surprising beauty that contrasts the spectacular setting with the greedy, bankrupt men who force their way northward, armed with harpoons for slaughter. The arcing sky is “garrulous with stars”; the black mountains of the landmass are “gargantuan and sumptuous”; a man is caught in an ambush and the back of his head “explodes in a brief carnation of blood and bone”. McGuire also remembers that it is not just the sight of things that horrifies. There is no escape from “the velvet reek of liquid faeces”, or the oxtail-taste of fresh seal blood.

The powerful story and the riches of the setting do not romanticise the past. The brutality of the whale hunt is perfectly apparent here and made all the more horrible because the men who take part are aware of it. Like us, they tell themselves that they are locked into the present. A dreadful fate cannot be escaped; it can only be replaced by another that is, perhaps, little better.

Rush Oh! is another cetacean tale, one set around sixty years later and on the opposite side of the globe – and it could not offer a starker contrast. Shirley Barrett’s novel has its moorings in a true story, in the lives of a whaling family called the Davidsons. They hunt the seas of New South Wales with the help of a pack of friendly orcas that herd their bigger cousins in return for a share of the catch. It is narrated by Mary, the eldest daughter of the family. She bumps up against life when she falls for an itinerant whale man called John Beck, who was once a Methodist minister, or so he says.

Their budding romance (and the mystery behind it) is supposed to be the engine of the book; that and whether the Davidsons will catch enough whales to pay their bills and fill their larders for the winter. Yet there is very little urgency here and even less atmosphere. Barrett is a screenwriter, which makes the lack of pace in her first novel a little surprising: for a dramatist, she has created very little drama. Barrett writes that poverty threatens, that there is danger at sea,
but it is hard to sense or to feel these here.

The violence of the hunt is not comprehended by Mary until the end of the novel, which is telling – for, if that violence had been apparent, the novel wouldn’t have slid into the category of history-lite that is littered about like so much flotsam on the shelves these days. Set out to sea, by all means, to catch your whale: be brave and take McGuire as your mate.

The North Water by Ian McGuire is published by Scribner (326pp, £14.99)

Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett is published by Virago (358pp, £14.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming