Learn more about CCRLS
Reading recommendations from Novelist
Online learning resources
Cover image for The North water : a novel
The North water : a novel

First U.S. edition.
New York : Henry Holt and Company, 2016.
Physical Description:
255 pages ; 25 cm
San Antonio Public Library -- 154-SAT.
The Volunteer, a nineteenth-century Yorkshire whaling ship, becomes the stage for a confrontation between brutal harpooner Henry Drax and ex-army surgeon Patrick Sumner, the ship's medic, during a violent, ill-fated voyage to the Arctic.
Electronic Access:
WorldCat Link


Call Number
McGuire, I.

On Order



One of The New York Times Book Review 's 10 Best Books of the Year

National Bestseller

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

Winner of the RSL Encore Award

Finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize

A New York Times and Wall Street Journal Bestseller

Named a Best Book of the Year by Chicago Tribune , The Wall Street Journal , The Guardian , New Statesman , Publishers Weekly , and Chicago Public Library

Behold the man: stinking, drunk, and brutal. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer , a Yorkshire whaler bound for the rich hunting waters of the arctic circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money, and no better option than to sail as the ship's medic on this violent, filthy, and ill-fated voyage.

In India, during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which man can stoop. He had hoped to find temporary respite on the Volunteer , but rest proves impossible with Drax on board. The discovery of something evil in the hold rouses Sumner to action. And as the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic winter, the fateful question arises: who will survive until spring?

With savage, unstoppable momentum and the blackest wit, Ian McGuire's The North Water weaves a superlative story of humanity under the most extreme conditions.

Author Notes

Ian McGuire grew up near Hull, England, and studied at the University of Manchester and the University of Virginia in the United States. He is the cofounder and codirector of the University of Manchester's Centre for New Writing. He writes criticism and fiction, and his stories have been published in Chicago Review , The Paris Review , and elsewhere. The North Water is his second novel.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

McGuire's novel is a dark, brilliant yarn set on a 19th-century Yorkshire whaler in the dead of winter. An ex-army surgeon named Patrick Sumner, his reputation ruined by an ignoble incident in wartime India, seeks to escape his past by shipping out as doctor on the whaling ship Volunteer, bound for the Arctic Circle. But the voyage to the waters north of the British Isle is doomed from the beginning: the men responsible for the ship have no intention of bringing it back in one piece. And if that weren't enough, a debauched murderer named Henry Drax is aboard. The harpooners meet with some success while at sea, whaling, sealing, and capturing a bear cub, but a test of wills begins after the mutilated body of a cabin boy is discovered below deck in a cask used to store minced-up whale blubber. Sumner challenges the suspected culprit, violence ensues, and soon the ship is without leadership. The frozen seas threaten to cripple the ship, and what's left of the crew tries desperately to survive the worst of the winter trapped in the ice. There is no light, no letup in this gruesome tale, so there is great significance in the rare but moving acts of kindness and camaraderie between these men in peril. An amazing journey. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

For a whaling ship out of Hull, England, bad luck and evil men turn an 1859 expedition into a nightmare. Henry Drax sets the tone in the opening pages, emerging from a harbor bordello, murdering a man for not buying him a drink, and killing a boy who might be leading him into an ambush. Drax is a harpooner among the 40-man crew of the Volunteer, a ship doomed before it sails. Capt. Brownlee has agreed with the owner to wreck the vessel for insurance when it reaches the North Water in Baffin Bay. Much of the action is seen through the eyes of ship's surgeon Patrick Sumner, who has a laudanum habit and carries a dark secret from his service with the British military in India. He plays detective when a cabin boy is sodomized and later murdered, eventually discovering one of the victim's teeth in Drax's arm. The vicious Drax also murders Brownlee and two Eskimo hunters who help the crew when the ship is wrecked and the sailors camp on ice. Along with human menace and mayhem, McGuire (Incredible Bodies, 2007) serves up gruesome descriptions of the killing of a whale and a polar bear. A bear rips off a man's arm. A man shelters from the cold in a freshly gutted polar bear. And for good measure, a man's intestinal abscess is operated on with stomach-turning detail. McGuire delivers not only arresting depictions of bloody destruction, but moments of fine prose that recall Seamus Heaney's harsh music, as when an iceberg is described as "an albinistic butte unmoored from the desert floor." For noirish thrills in an unusual setting, McGuire has the goods and the gore, but this bookgraphic in its violence, language, and sexual referencesis not for the squeamish. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* When Patrick Sumner returns to England from India, after serving as an army surgeon in the Sepoy Rebellion (1857-58), he finds himself with few options, having been expunged from the service. Lacking other prospects, he signs on as ship surgeon for a whaling expedition onboard the Volunteer. The rough accommodations aren't any worse than those he suffered in India, and the crew's minor injuries are easy work compared to tending battle-mangled soldiers. But when he treats a cabin boy displaying evidence of horrific abuse, Sumner hunts the predator onboard, even after it costs the cabin boy his life. Henry Drax is popular and unmatched when it comes to harpooning, but he's miscalculated his power and put too much faith in his shipmates' apathy. Sumner uses his medical knowledge and a dose of forensics to accuse Drax as the ship navigates the Arctic Sea dangerously close to winter, and a disaster leaves them fighting nature and each other for survival. McGuire's tale is every bit as raw, suspenseful, and brutal as befits a Victorian whaling expedition with a psychopathic killer. But like Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves (2006) and Dan Simmons' Drood (2009), there is plenty of literary heft in this novel's thoughtfully developed characters, absorbing period details, and detailed renderings of dangerously beautiful settings. This deserves attention beyond readers of crime and historical fiction, especially from those stalking provocative book-group fare.--Tran, Christine Copyright 2015 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

THE KING AND QUEEN OF MALIBU: The True Story of the Battle Tor Paradise, by David K. Randall. (Norton, $15.95.) In the late 19 th century, Frederick Rindge headed West with his wife, May, and bought an enormous secluded ranch, which they thought would guarantee them eternal privacy. When nearby homesteaders began clamoring for rights along their private beach, the conflict devolved into an acrimonious battle whose legacy is still felt. THE NORTH WATER, by Ian McGuire. (Picador, $16.) An opium-addicted Irish surgeon, his reputation ruined during the siege of Delhi in 1857, joins the crew of a whaling ship, where he encounters a psychopathic harpooner motivated by violence. McGuire's novel, one of the Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2016, is "propelled by a vision that is savage, brutal and relentless," our reviewer, Colm Toibin, said. WE WERE FEMINISTS ONCE: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, by Andi Zeisler. (PublicAffairs, $16.99.) Zeisler, a founding editor of Bitch magazine, chronicles the movement's relation to mainstream culture, from when the "f-word" was largely taboo to now, when brands co-opt the term. Today's "glossy, feel-good feminism," she says, threatens to divert attention from the real issue: systemic inequality. TRAVELERS REST, by Keith Lee Morris. (Back Bay/Little, Brown, $15.99.) When a snowstorm derails their travel plans, to bring home an uncle from rehab, the Addisons seek refuge at a hotel in Good Night, Idaho, an eerie town where little is as it appears to be. The family are soon separated in the town and must try to find their way back to each other. Morris "has an adroit hand for characterization and atmosphere; the people feel real even when they actually are stand-ins for the uncanny," our reviewer, N. K. Jemisin, said. DEATH'S SUMMER COAT: What the History of Death and Dying Can Tell Us About Life and Living, by Brandy Schillace. (Pegasus, $16.95.) The reluctance to discuss death in modern Western societies is a relatively new development, Schillace notes. She investigates other cultures' mortality rituals, from "death cafes" to mourning practices in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge's mass killings, as a way to lend new perspectives about grief. VINEGAR GIRL: William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" Retold, by Anne Tyler. (Hogarth Shakespeare, $15.) In Tyler's reimagining, Kate - a preschool teacher loved by her students but unpopular with their parents - is roped into a green card marriage plot: Her father, a biologist working on a project his colleagues have all but dismissed, is desperate to keep his research assistant in the country.