Oct 12, 2016
After a break in August, we returned in September ready for two things: a delicious meal and a vigorous discussion of a truly gruesome seafaring tale. We had both and weren't disappointed by either. As to the first, Armando grilled an outstanding yellowtail tuna (caught, incidentally, by him on his most recent trip to the Sea of Cortez) and paired it with a perfectly done beef tri tip. To eat so well when discussing the plight of 19th-century sailors trapped in Arctic ice was almost criminal. Almost. But not enough to prevent some of us from reaching for seconds. Thank you, Armando, for setting an outstanding table, as usual.
We should also acknowledge Paul Liberatore, whose lifestyle pieces in the Marin IJ are consistently interesting and enjoyable. Paul was our guest for the evening and we are grateful to him for the positive reaction that followed his recent article about our book group. Thanks, Paul. Your profile of us provided a perspective sorely missing in the New York Times' trend piece last May.
Our Review and Discussion of The North Water
First, a disclaimer: a courtesy copy of The North Water was sent to us by the good folks at Henry Holt & Co. Evidently, they were hoping we'd review it and help them sell a few copies. Unfortunately, it was several months before Ian McGuire's first novel finally made it into our rotation. During that time the book was published, got great reviews, and sold plenty of hardcover copies. Thank goodness, because we genuinely liked the book and wouldn't want anyone to think we'd sing for the price of a lousy hardback. (We can be bought, just not that cheaply.)
The North Water places the reader aboard the Volunteer, an 1850's whaling ship whose sailors are wretched (to a man), whose voyage is futile, and whose prey has retreated far north of their usual breeding grounds. But if any of us thought these simple themes would combine for a pleasant bit of historical fiction, perhaps with elements of Herman Melville, Patrick O'Brian, or Richard Henry Dana, we were in for a big surprise. The first page treats the reader to the novel's prime antagonist, Henry Drax, leaving a whorehouse and openly savoring the residue of a night of fornication. Within a few short pages he has killed a man, sodomized a boy, and shipped out on the Volunteer.
All of us found McGuire's novel rich in its language (with all of its coarseness) and peopled with unforgettable characters. As for universal themes, we kept coming back to the obvious: good vs. evil. Although, as Roy pointed out, since virtually every character is badly flawed, the contrast is really between Drax's malevolence and the more modest shortcomings of his shipmates. No one, including the protagonist Sumner, gets a pass from McGuire.
Rating The North Water
While Armando critiqued one of the whaling scenes as "inauthentic," the rest of us were captivated by a story so different from anything we've read to date. According to Larry, the book had the urgency and harshness of The Revenant; Doug found it "unflinchingly violent"; Tom said it was "engrossing" (high praise from the engineer!); Paul fell hard for McGuire's many "well-turned phrases"; and the history geek in Terry was fascinated by the novel's prescient account of a dying industry. With a rating of 7.8, The North Water landed high on our growing list of books read.
Next Up: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Doug miscalculated badly when he offered us 14 titles for our consideration. He subsequently pared the list to four in order to force a decision. We rejected Barbarian Days when we learned we could read a magazine-length version; Underground Airlines had some confusing it with Underground Railroad; and The Throwback Special simply didn't resonate. Which left us with Nguyen's much-praised The Sympathizer. Given how impressed we were with another recent Pulitzer winner (The Orphan Master's Son), we have high hopes for our next selection.