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The North Water

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  18,549 Ratings  ·  2,426 Reviews
-- Winner of the RSL Encore Award 2017 --

A ship sets sail with a killer on board . . .
1859. A man joins a whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle. Having left the British Army with his reputation in tatters, Patrick Sumner has little option but to
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published March 15th 2016 by Henry Holt and Co. (first published February 11th 2016)
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André Silva This is part of Hilary Mantel's review of the book:

"(...) I think it's brilliant. (...) At times I have to confess I did ask myself: is he heaping on…more
This is part of Hilary Mantel's review of the book:

"(...) I think it's brilliant. (...) At times I have to confess I did ask myself: is he heaping on too many layers of horrid detail, just to provoke a shudder? But then I thought, no, it is the reality of this extraordinary world, the details of which would remain mercifully obscure to the consumers of the whale oil; they would never guess how their light is bred in such darkness. It's as horrific as a journal from the trenches of the Great War, or from the field of some atrocity.
The North Water is a fast-paced, gripping story set in a world of gruesome violence and perversity, where “why?” is not a question and murder happens on a whim: but where a very faint ray of grace and hope lights up the landscape of salt and blood and ice. (...)"(less)
Nick Loeser
This answer contains spoilers… (view spoiler)

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
Rating details
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Nov 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: advance-copy

Jack London on Steroids!

This novel contains foul language, horrific gore, rape, murder, animal cruelty, and other examples of total moral bankruptcy and I absolutely loved it.

Why? How could I?

I loved it for the author’s laser-focused descriptive writing and realistic character development. I loved it for its highly suspenseful story and well-researched and seamlessly-blended historical detail. I loved it for its outward exploration of the Arctic world and for its more inward moral and psycholo
Jeffrey Keeten
”There is no sin left now, there is only the blood and the water and the ice; there is only life and death and the grey-green spaces in between. He will not die he tells himself, not now, not ever. When he is thirsty, he will drink his own blood; when he is hungry, he will eat his own flesh. He will grow enormous from the feasting, he will expand to fill the empty sky.”

The Yorkshire whaler named the Volunteer is on its way to the Arctic Circle to hunt for whales. While other whalers go South, th
Aug 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
congratulations! semifinalist in goodreads' best historical fiction category 2016!

"I'd venture the Good Lord don't spend much time up here in the North Water," he says with a smile. "It's most probable he don't like the chill."

if Moby-Dick; or, The Whale had been more like this, i would have loved it. note to melville - next time, less rope & anatomy, more murder & brutality. you're a young kid, hermie, you'll get there…

this book is grit lit gone to sea, where all the staples of the genr
Nov 10, 2016 marked it as abandoned
Shelves: booker, 2017, historical
I would call this dicklit. I reserve this identifier for pseudo-manly books, like The North Water, which pretends to be some kind of deep, tough literature, but fails to hide that its author has an almost juvenile obsession with violence, gore and bowel movements. This is not grit, this is garbage.

I am judging Hilary Mantel for blurbing this so hard right now...
mark monday
grueling misadventures on a 19th century whaling ship.

well I suppose I have to admire how sustained the effort is. Ian McGuire is relentlessly focused on the visceral, that's for certain "...they drip not blood, as usual, but some foul straw-colored coagulation like the unspeakable rectal oozings of a human corpse..." yeah that phrase pretty much sums up the novel. the author wants to repel the reader. very little depth and zero resonance but a whole lot of brutality, atrocity, and sce
Paul Bryant
Jun 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Scene 1

Enter a man followed by a man

Man : Whut? Awk! (dies)

Scene 2

Enter a whale followed by several whalers

Whale : Aw shit! Ugh! No! (dies)

Scene 3

Enter a dog followed by a bear

Dog : Yah! Fuck you! Bark! (dies)

Scene 4

Enter a bear followed by a man

Bear : Aw hell, no – urghhhh! (dies)

Scene 5

Enter three men

First man : (dies)

Second man : (dies)

Scene 6

Enter an author

Ian McGuire : And that’s how you get four stars from Paul Bryant. Easy!
Jan 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Quick. Name the baddest bad guy you've ever read. Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist? Javer from Les Miserables? Hannibal Lecter? Serena Pemberton? Cathy Ames? Cormac McCarthy's Judge Holden or Anton Chigurh?

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce a new boy to the club of horror. "... and something else, something wholly different, has appeared instead. This courtyard has become a place of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations, and Henry Drax is its wild, unholy engineer."

While blurbs will te
Jan 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The North Water takes us into a coarse masculine world where all the better qualities of humanity are hard to find. Sumner, a disgraced surgeon, is constrained to find employment on a whaling ship at a time when the need for whale oil is declining. There’s immediately something suspicious about the real task the owner of The Volunteer has set its captain. The crew of the ship are a motley rabble of ruthless and desperate men. Sumner, the surgeon, is an innocent by comparison. He’s addicted to la ...more
Andrew Smith
Jan 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Andrew by: Glenn Sumi
I’ve read plenty of crime fiction in my time, some of it graphically violent. And I’ve come across some bad men too, violent sociopaths who have occasionally haunted me long after the final page has been turned. But I’ve never before come across a book so brutal, so unmercifully unsettling and savage as this one. From practically the first page it slapped me across the face, dragged me across the room and slammed me against the wall. I loved it!

It’s 1850’s England and we are first introduced to
Jul 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: those with a strong stomach
Ungodly stenches, thick bloody discharges, sluicey shits dropped from the sides of boats, ursine gore, carnage of baby seals, rape, more than you could ever imagine knowing about blubber, murder.

Just a few of the things you can expect to read about in this no-holds-barred Victorian adventure on a whaling ship. Sounds good, right?

It is. Really, really good.

Long-listed for the 2016 Booker Prize, I feel the same delight in its nomination that I did for His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the
Ɗắɳ  2.☊
Sep 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Ɗắɳ 2.☊ by: The Shayne-Train
Now this, this is the adventure I’ve been looking for! I couldn’t help but notice several reviewers comparing this to a Jack London tale, and it’s hard for me not to follow suit. As a kid, I was a big fan of Mr. London. I especially loved his Alaskan adventures, which opened my eyes to a place so remote and far removed from my everyday life experiences that it made my head spin. I longed to set a course into that uncharted wilderness. Those books filled me with a wanderlust which still consumes ...more

A very good reading. Gripping and engrossing even if at most times truly gruesome. I know some readers were whining on mega-literality in characterising people and their deeds, couldn't stomach scatological descriptions and direly vulgar language, well, the proverb to swear as a sailor didn’t come out of nowhere, I suppose, found some protagonists exaggerated, cartoonish and grotesque even and filthiness and all this mindless brutality just put them off. I can see their point. Really. But it doe
Apr 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, the-sea
“Otto crouches in the bows with the harpoon’s wooden shaft gripped tightly in his fists. With a giant horselike snort…the whale exhales a V-shaped flume of grayish vapor. The boat and crew are temporarily obscured, but when they reappear, Otto is on his feet and the harpoon is poised above his head – the barb pointing downwards and the shaft forming a black hypotenuse against the sullen sky. The whale’s back looks…like a sunken island, a grainy volcanic hump of rock peeping from the waves. Otto ...more
Dec 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
A deep, dark, unflinching, and unsparing account of men battling the elements, each other, and, for the most part, themselves. The character of Drax was the most non-cartoonishly evil character I'd encountered in a long time. But of course this only made me wonder: is that even possible? Isn't such a pure distillation of evil necessarily cartoonish? I wondered several times this as I read--whether every awful thing he did was meant merely to shock--but in the end the story carried me along its s ...more
Aug 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Darkness, darkness. In the early 1860s a whaling expedition is undertaken from Hull, Yorkshire, at a time when the demand for whale oil has fallen due to a new discovery, fossil oil. The voyage is doomed from the start since the ship must go down in order for the avaricious shipowners to collect the insurance money. The vessel is crewed, among others, by a homicidal maniac incapable of remorse, and a ship's surgeon, just cashiered from the British Army after the Indian Mutiny, who's a laudanum j ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I started this because it was named to the Man Booker Prize longlist in 2016, and I was hearing good things about it from some of my reading friends. Despite not being named to the short list, I decided it was worth finishing.

I feel two ways about this novel. On the one hand, there is some very violent stuff in this book. Rape and murder and guiltless violence all around. There are frequent derogatory words directed at other races and women. But on the other hand (and forgive me but there really
The North Water is a savage, harsh, gory, dark fiction story taking place mainly on a whaling vessel in the 19th century. Ever moving north in search of the dwindling whale population, the realities of life are hard enough for these men, never mind the serial killer/child molester hiding among them.

I listened to this on audio and the narrator John Keating was most excellent. I would love to hear more of his work in the future.

I enjoyed the hell out of this brutal story, but it's not for ever
Nov 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is 1857 and a whaling ship is about to leave for the Artic. With Mr Baxter as the wily financier funding the expedition and an assembled crew which includes Captain Brownlee, perceived as ‘unlucky’ by the men, Dr Patrick Sumner, an Irish surgeon with secrets and, oh yes, a vicious murderer called Henry Drax.

This is a dark and unsettling novel. The outline of the story may make it seem like a murder mystery, but this is far more literary fiction than a thriller. The writing is violent and unfl
Glenn Sumi
Dec 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites

Every year I come across a book or two that I want to press on EVERY reader I know. This, after just a few salty pages, quickly became one of them. Keep in mind: if savage language and limb-tearing action makes you queasy, it might not be for you. Furthermore, try to read this in the winter. I bet your chilly, slushy commute ain’t got nothing on what the characters in this book endure.

The North Water is about a doomed expedition heading up to the Arctic Circle. It’s the 1850s, and the whaling in
Tom Mathews
Mar 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: people who like good man-against-nature tales
I’m not overly squeamish. In the last couple years I have read Blood Meridian, reputedly Cormac McCarthy’s bloodiest work, and The Ruins, by Scott Smith, another notoriously sanguineous selection. But it wasn’t until I was reading this book that I realized that I needed a bookshelf for books that are ‘not for the fainthearted’.

The North Water reads like Jack London on crack. It is an extremely visceral story of the final days of the whaling boom when, in order to hunt the ever dwindling herds o
Jun 24, 2017 rated it liked it
""I'd venture the Good Lord don't spend much time up here in the North Water," he says with a smile. "It's most probable he don't like the chill""
Jan 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Laura by: Doug
5 stars....highly recommend. It is graphic, but it is entertaining. Adventure, murder, damning evidence (unique twist), deceit, character study, and medical procedures....this book has it all. If you are looking for very well written book with lots of action, take a peek at this novel. Recommended by GR friend Doug.

4.5 stars (reread Jan 2018 for A-team book club)
Oct 12, 2016 rated it liked it
Other than the fact that someone seems to have had some potty-training issues as a toddler, this book was pretty good. I'm employing only the mildest irony.

I say that because this book is filled with the stench of mid-19th century aromas from the privy, for the most part. McGuire really likes to indulge in the smells of a more malodorous age, packing the book with instances, on just about every page, with some mention of smells of urine and faeces and beer-laden farts. It's really a teen boy's
Peter Boyle
If you like your historical fiction bleak, bloody and barbarous, then Ian McGuire's Booker long-listed The North Water is the one for you. Think Moby Dick by way of Quentin Tarantino and you're not far off.

It tells the story of a doomed whaling voyage in the 1850s. The Volunteer sets sail from Hull with the motliest of crews, made up of brutes and savages and skippered by the dubious Captain Brownlee. In the first few pages we meet Henry Drax, a vicious harpooner with a thirst for murder. He cas
Roger Brunyate
Jul 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: place-portraits
A Pungent Horror
Behold the man.

He snuffles out of Clappison's courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air—turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning-piss stink of just-emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head, and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money's worth. At the end of Charterhouse Lane he turns north onto Wincolmlee, past the De La Pole Ta
May 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Skorofido Skorofido
Μετά από τις γυναικείες ανησυχίες, είπα να πάω σε κάτι πιο μπρουτάλ, πιο ματσό, πιο αντρουά βρε παιδί μου.
‘Σκοτεινός αρκτικός’ λοιπόν, υποψήφιο για Booker 2016, κάτι θα είδαν οι ειδικοί…
Η υπόθεση είναι κάπου στο 1860 (αφού ένας εκ των δύο ηρώων – τέλος πάντων δεν τους λες και ήρωες στο καθήκον – συμμετείχε στην πολιορκία του Δελχί το 1857), σ’ένα φαλαινοθηρικό σκάφος που πλέει στον παγωμένο Aρκτικό ωκεανό για να πιάσει τι άλλο; φάλαινες. Τώρα μην περιμένετε να συναντήσετε και τίποτα καλόπαιδα, σ
Γιώργος Κατσούλας
ΦΤΙΑΓΜΈΝΟ ΓΙΑ ΝΑ ΓΊΝΕΙ ΤΑΙΝΊΑ!Η δράση δεν σταματά ποτέ και εξελισεται πάντα μπροστά χωρίς κανένα φλας μπακ.Ο συγγραφέας δεν σε μπερδεύει με πολλούς χαρακτήρες και πολλές ορολογίες και έτσι η ανάγνωση κυλάει νεράκι.Η γλώσσα του φυσικά είναι ωμή,σκληρή,ρεαλιστική και η περιγραφή κάποιων σκηνών είναι δοσμένη πολυ εντυπωσιακά.Ο συγγραφέας πλάθει έναν κόσμο χωρίς κανέναν θετικό ήρωα οπου ο ανθρωπος τεκικα θα αποδειχθει πιο επικυνδυνος απο τα στοιχεια της φυσης και τα αγρια θηρια.Χαρακτηρολογικο αποκο ...more
Rebecca Foster
A gritty tale of adventure and murder set aboard a mid-nineteenth-century whaling ship. Archaic adjectives pile up in a clever recreation of Victorian prose: “The men, empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish’s steaming, expectorated gore.” Much of the novel is bleak and brutal like that. There are a lot of “F” and “C” words, too, and this is so impeccably researched that I don’t doubt the language is accurate. McGuire never shies away from the gory details of life, whether that’s putrid smells, ...more
Viv JM
3.5 stars, rounded up for its sheer exuberance.

The North Water is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It tells the tale of the ill-fated voyage of a whaling ship in the 19th century. It is violent and shocking in places, with plenty of blood, guts and lurid descriptions of bodily fluids. The body count is pretty high. It is certainly not my usual read, but nevertheless I found it thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining. I am slightly perpelexed by its inclusion on the Man Booker longlist, as it c
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Retro Chapter Chi...: The North Water 2019 5 9 Jun 25, 2018 05:21AM  
Title #5 2 37 Dec 04, 2017 11:35PM  
Play Book Tag: The North Water by Ian McGuire - 4 Stars 2 11 Nov 18, 2017 06:27PM  
Ancient & Medieva...: September 2017 Group Read; The North Water by Ian McGuire 49 86 Oct 17, 2017 02:02PM  
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Ian McGuire is the author of The North Water published by Henry Holt in March 2016. Ian grew up in East Yorkshire, and studied at the University of Manchester in England and the University of Virginia in the United States. He is the co-founder and co-director of the University of Manchester's Centre for New Writing. He has published short stories in The Paris Review, The Chicago Review and elseweh ...more
More about Ian McGuire

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“He finds the lying comes easy enough, of course. Words are just noises in a certain order, and he can use them any way he wishes. Pigs grunt, ducks quack, and men tell lies: that is how it generally goes.” 10 likes
“Cleverness, he thinks, will get you nowhere; it is only the stupid, the brilliantly stupid, who will inherit the earth.” 7 likes
More quotes…