The North Water (Simon & Schuster, 2016) chronicles the fall of Patrick Sumner, an Irishman of tragic past and lacklustre present, and a man in thrall to the consequences of a mistake he made before the story began. Told in gripping present tense, The North Water bears the reader along on a story as bleak as the Arctic landscape and as inexorable as the tide.
One of the most interesting I found the protagonist, Sumner, very compelling. At first, his agency is negligible: he spends the first half of the book as an essentially passive character, and seems to be a magnet for violent, near-fatal accidents. This bad luck carries him through a kind of trial by fire, culminating in near death, that forces him to grow, and to take control, symbolically, of his fate.
More important though, in my opinion, is the portrayal of the book’s ‘token’ gay character. A worrying pattern I’ve seen over and over, especially in historical fiction, is that narrative punishment–violence, humiliation, even death–is often doled out disproportionately to queer characters (if they exist) under the guise of verisimilitude. The feeling of pleasant surprise was followed immediately by fear that this character would end up scapegoated for a crime committed by another character, and hanged or brutally killed by another crew member. When he wasn’t, I was relieved more than anything else.
Another pattern I sometimes see in historical writing is the conflation of paedophilia and homosexuality. This can be in keeping with the accepted view at the time, but it’s a fine line to walk and authors often cross it, perpetuating and legitimising the prejudices of their characters. As a queer writer and consumer of media I see this distinction erased constantly in media that is often at once queer-baiting and queer-demonizing. But, to my surprise, with a single line of dialogue McGuire makes this distinction overtly clear, sidestepping what could have been a deeply problematic characterisation. I’m endlessly grateful to McGuire for including what may have been, for him, a throwaway line.
The North Water is one of those books that picks you up and shakes you, and doesn’t put you down until it’s over. In the style of some my favorite historical novels, Wolf Hall, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, The North Water has a black vein of omen and mysticism running through it that is often quite chilling. It’s a filthy, brutal story like any good period piece, but it’s pierced throughout with a tenuous hope and unexpected delicacy that gutters like a candle but refuses to go out.
The North Water was published by Simon & Schuster in 2016.