May 26, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 9°C
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Bios & Memoirs


The Dream of My Return

A paranoid Salvadoran expat in Mexico City dreams of going him — but conspiracies come first.

As Good As Dead

Elizabeth Evans' new novel is a powerful look at women friends "reunited" in name only.


David Vann's vision of family redemption starts magically, but grows foul with rage.

My Documents

Chilean Alejandro Zambra's stories move from fictional autobiography into handsome melancholy.


In the spirit of "Dr. Strangelove," French novelist Michel Houellebecq puts a brilliantly comic spin on a sensitive topic.

Dear Thief

Samantha Harvey's novel-length letter to a long-lost friend is as brilliant as it is sad.

Tyler's Last

"Tyler's Last" evokes the ghost of Patricia Highsmith in a thriller of global complications.

One Out of Two

Put mischievously spinster twins in a small Mexican city and out come sly laughs.

Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue

André Alexis's stunning "Fifteen Dogs" confers canines with human sensibility, and the greater gift of empathy.

This Census-Taker

China Miéville turns too arcane in his latest foray into the Stonehenge-styled surreal.

The North Water
By Ian McGuire
Scribner, 2016. 328 pages

It is somehow appropriate Mexican director Alejandro González Ińárritu released his tale of North American survival and revenge, "The Revenant," at about the same time as British author Ian McGuire signed off on his second novel, a gripping Melville-Poe-Conrad styled account of 1860s whalers sailing from Hull to Hell at the self-serving behest of a wealthy schemer named Baxter. While "The Revenant" is about fur trappers in the brutal 1820s Dakotas, "The North Water" pushes those Dakotas into "the seething hillocks of an adamantine sea," focusing on the journey of a captain (Brownlee), a first mate (Cavandish), a surgeon (Sumner), and a harpooner (Drax) as they steer the ill-fated "Volunteer" toward Greenland with brutality, bad news and perversions as their only companions. Henry Drax — whose name conjures up Nosferatu — is a casually depraved rapist and killer motivated by instinct only. Irishman Patrick Sumner, a laudanum addict escaping a checkered Siege of Delhi past, is his ethical antithesis, and the book's detective-flavored driving force. McGuire's tactile prose surges carnivorously whenever whales stir and blubber leaks ("The men, empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish's steaming, expectorated gore...") But "unnatural schemes" percolate behind the reek, and the failure of those schemes soon provides for surreal landscapes (shades of Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym) as the story scuttles wickedly toward ice floes and ursine entrails.

Headed north, McGuire pays excellent homage to writers who pioneered the whale and whipped sea adventure story, his blood-and-guts prose gorgeously illuminating the nooks and crannies of human hardship and bodily stink. He writes of "strait gates to a larger darkness" where "enormous icebergs loom like broken and carious monuments..." The sum of gutted innards is enough to supply the whole of the unscrupulous 19th-century. Later, though, with Sumner front and center, McGuire loses his way in a snowy wasteland that includes willful Eskimos and a Godforsaken priest, recovering his story just in time to deliver a bludgeoning coda.

Like "The Revenant's" Hugh Glass, Sumner survives the worst of the tundra in the warming "fecal perfume" of a slain bear, "dead flesh tight around him like an overcoat." He becomes a savage to hunt one, Drax. There are no real winners here, not even among the living, a species in short supply by the novel's end.

Reviewed by Book Staff
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