Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a sucker for all those Gold-Rush, Man! vs. the Elements! –type stories. Jack London, Louis L’Amour, Moby-Dick, building bonfires to keep the wolves at bay, fighting bears with knives forged out of your own testosterone –type shit. What can I say, that’s my jam. So I was excited to pick up North Water by Ian McGuire, a tale of horror and adventure on a whaling ship hunting the Arctic Oceans and two men in bitter conflict against each other. Even better, universal praise and Awards have been heaped on this book, allegedly universally praised for it’s brilliance. The New York Times listed it as one of the top ten books of 2016. Truly, to read this is to embark on a very special and unique adventure.
***MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK FOLLOW.
OK, MAJOR SPOILERS.***
The first couple chapters establish the ideologies of the antagonist as we go along with him from his perspective. And we get to learn that his is “pure evil”, as quoted on the dust jacket, because he likes to rape children. Rape and murder them, and it is clinically and graphically depicted in the book several times. I am firmly in the anti-rape-as-literary-device camp, not only for PC precious widdle snowflake reasons, but because it’s just fucking lazy. The Antagonist Henry Drax is unintelligent, has no schemes or plans, no intentions other than to satisfy himself. Nothing about him is mysterious or inexplicable, so I found him pretty boring. Look, I am not trying to trivialize real-world traumas or experiences; ignorant, selfish impulses are some of the scariest things in this world. But, in my escapist popcorn-book literature, I just expected something more. Drax is referred to from a quote on the back as “[a]supernatural evil that examines the depths of the human soul”. Murdering kids with your penis really falls short of ultimate supernatural evil for me. It is brutal and disgusting, but it’s not a novel, original or intelligent way to show off the capital-E evilness of your villain. And for many of us, that right there is enough to write off the book, and rightly so. The hits don’t stop there, kids. Our protagonist is just as boring. Our dear hero, Sumner, himself a literary cliché, is a British Army Medic who did some bad things in India on behalf of the Empire and relieves his guilt by doing opium and moping around the Whaling docks. Needing a Surgeon, he finds himself upon the same ship as Drax and violà! We have our reluctant Hero vs. unrepentant cock stereotypical conflict. He even gets a scene where he exorcises his demons from the evils he did to Indians by befriending Native Inuit in the North. But that’s as subtle as the rest of it, I guess.
Okay, look, it wasn’t THAT bad. Predictable and unintelligent, it goes exactly where you think it is going after a couple chapters. Sometimes, that’s ok. The familiar can be comforting, it can be enjoyed, we all know the Rebellion is going to win in Star Wars, Liam Neeson is going to special skills all the Eastern European Terrorists to death. There is a lot to be said about the structure and framework of an established formula, and if you can overlook the Rape aspect of the plot, it’s not NOT entertaining. But maybe we as an audience have done enough to bolster up these creators who use rape as a lazy literary device, and that is why creators can continue to use it as shorthand for “EVIL!” Maybe it’s time to call it as it is: lazy, unimaginative bullshit.
I shall not judge you for liking this book; there is more there than the child murder-y rape bits. Fuck it, though, if you write a book filled with CHILD RAPE it’s going to overshadow anything else about your book. Especially when it seems to be the one tool in your toolbox. A writer should have something else; At least one other fucking gimmick than graphic violent sodomy and pederasty. Flowery prose; anything. And I admit, maybe I got fooled by the hype. Bought in to the overworking marketing machine that is the LITERARY PRESS (FAKE NEWS! SAD!) and Amazon Reviews. Instead of finger-touching to greatness, this novel is just squeezing the tasteless juice from the low-hanging fruit.