Julie's Reviews > The North Water

The North Water by Ian McGuire
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bookshelves: british, 21st-century, click-lit

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 locker room of sour and stinking descriptions and it does get very old very fast. Yes, we do all understand it was a "dirtier" age, and particularly so on long sea voyages, but the moments of explosive diarrhea far outnumber the whales and seals -- and so it's little wonder that it was an ill-fated voyage.

The novel seems quite derivative -- bringing to mind Herman Melville and Jack London: ill-fated whaling ships, doomed to sink; and nasty characters who know nothing other than to be nasty. In both instances, McGuire doesn't quite reach the master story tellers' skills: Moby Dick is a much better tale and Wolf Larsen makes Henry Drax look like a knitting granny in a rocking chair.

While some reviewers claim to have never seen such a monstrous villain as Drax, I raise an improbable eyebrow. Really? He's just a garden variety sociopath with not much to him -- absolutely no complexity or abstruseness: he's just a big bully. There is nothing surprising about his actions or motivations. (Much more complex and evil characters have been delivered on the television series Dexter ... or even Law and Order: SVU or Law & Order: Criminal Intent. )

It's really a mish-mash of plots and characters from various novels; herein we even find Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of The Four slightly tarted up, but very recognizable.

To steal one of McGuire's own expressions: it's truly a gallimaufry of a novel!

And therein lies the rub, as the saying goes ...

For all of the other ailments this book possesses, it is lifted up to be a sum greater than all its putrefying parts because McGuire writes beautifully. This man knows words, and how to use them! Anyone who can use gallimaufry in a sentence in a "stinking" adventure novel about the sea without making it sound priggish or pretentious has really got my attention.

The first few chapters, I have to admit, had me chortling over the cartoonish characters. These worthy whaling men stopped just short of grinding out such phrases as "Aaaarrrr, is that you, matey? Ahoy and Blimey, but I'll send ya to Davey Jones' locker yet, my pretty..."

But, having got that out of his system, McGuire really changes the game and sets out to scourge the seven seas with the strength of his prose.

If he could only work a plot that is worthy of his tremendous word skills, he would be a force to contend with in the writers' universe.

The strength and polish of his exquisite writing style kept me reading to the end, even though I didn't much enjoy the tale.

This was on the long list for 2016 Booker Prize and while it probably shouldn't have been there in the first place, it is a far, far better read than both Eileen and Hot Milk, which ended up on the short list. Go figure!




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Reading Progress

October 10, 2016 – Started Reading
October 10, 2016 – Shelved
October 12, 2016 – Finished Reading
June 3, 2018 – Shelved as: british
June 3, 2018 – Shelved as: 21st-century
June 3, 2018 – Shelved as: click-lit

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Great review, Julie, thanks so much.
Raises that age-old writer's question, what's more important? - the story or the writing ...
Ideally, both oughta rock!!


message 2: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala I like your mild irony, Julie - I'm thinking Ian McGuire must be turning puce ;-)


message 3: by Paromjit (new)

Paromjit Loved your review, Julie. Still going to put it on the back burner, I want more from a book than beautiful prose. Thank you.


message 4: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Ansbro A highly entertaining review, Julie!
Gallimaufry had me scrabbling for my thesaurus. Sounds as if it should be some mythical land far, far away.

I'm normally loathe to recommend books, but this sort of thing is probably done better in the magnificent https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1...


message 5: by Ken (new)

Ken Ill-fated, indeed. The odors sealed it!


Julie Anne wrote: "Great review, Julie, thanks so much.
Raises that age-old writer's question, what's more important? - the story or the writing ...
Ideally, both oughta rock!!"


No question, Anne. Style without substance belongs on the runway. But if you only have substance, you only have a stodgy pudding at best, and thus also indigestible. : )


Julie Fionnuala wrote: "I like your mild irony, Julie - I'm thinking Ian McGuire must be turning puce ;-)"

Puce: "brownish-purple," 1787, from French puce "flea-color; flea," from Latin pucilem (nominative pulex) "flea," from PIE *plou- "flea" (cf. Sanskrit plusih, Greek psylla, Old Church Slavonic blucha, Lithuanian blusa, Armenian lu "flea"). That it could be generally recognized as a color seems a testimony to our ancestors' intimacy with vermin.

Yes, Fionnuala, I do believe you're right. It seems especially apt, given his subject matter. That was another thing about the book: everybody was scratching, and then smelling what they were scratching. If it's possible to get vicarious disease, I think I caught something from this book!

(But you did make me laugh out loud.)


Julie Paromjit wrote: "Loved your review, Julie. Still going to put it on the back burner, I want more from a book than beautiful prose. Thank you."

Paromjit -- I think it's still worth a read ... someday ... And for certain, we all have different opinions about the books we love or hate. But duly warned is fully armed. : ) Thank you.


Julie Kevin wrote: "A highly entertaining review, Julie!
Gallimaufry had me scrabbling for my thesaurus. Sounds as if it should be some mythical land far, far away.

I'm normally loathe to recommend books, but this so..."


Isn't it a lovely word, Kevin? Yes, a Gallimaufry, ... worthy of Jonathan Swift, I would say, in some far off place, and located just beside Glubbdubdrib. I'm sure McGuire must have some good Irish blood in him, and so comes by the blarney quite naturally. : )


Julie Ken wrote: "Ill-fated, indeed. The odors sealed it!"

A bit like that dead skunk in the middle of the road, Ken, ... stinking to high heaven. : )


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