“Flensing” refers to the stripping of blubber from a whale. The word occurs frequently in Ian McGuire’s brutal and powerful novel The North Water. Flensing is also an apt description of the experience of reading this historical work, set in the dying days of the nineteenth-century whaling boom. McGuire cleanses nothing from his description of the odors, fluids, and fetid reality of life both on and off the whaling ship Volunteer. No one—neither reader nor any of the characters—leaves this novel clean, physically or morally. If the publishers seek a blurb for the paperback edition, I offer this: “A viscous read.”
The base malevolence of harpooner Henry Drax, a man for whom “words are just noises in a certain order,” comes into conflict with the residual morality of the ship’s surgeon, Patrick Sumner, a man trying to escape his past. Drax sees the world as existing for him to flense, while Sumner still holds out hope for humanity. When one of Drax’s “flensings” goes beyond the pale of even the hardened conscience of a whaling ship, Sumner cannot let his sense of justice be subverted. And so the two men battle for their lives and their very souls (if Drax can be said to have soul). Their battle plays out on land and sea, and on the ice floes of the North Waters.
I thought of the television series Deadwood often as I read McGuire’s novel. The two narratives share a gift for language both elevated and profane, and both consider deeper questions of morality, especially concerning justice and revenge, the past and its secrets. And neither have any compunction about laying bare bodies and their secretions. So the second part of my blurb for the paperback edition: “Deadwood on a whaling ship.”
Rich with historical maritime detail, The North Sea is a morality tale with no easy answers, a rollicking adventure story, and a crime thriller fraught with violence and greed.