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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

The North Water as Moby-Dick in reverse

The North Water is something like a whodunnit in reverse; the "mystery" is the sodomy attack on one of the cabin boys on the whaling ship and the subsequent murder of the cabin boy, which sets off an investigation by the captain and the ship's surgeon. In this novel, however, we know more than any of the characters - and in particular we know who attacked the cabin boy, as we'd met the crew member Drax in the 1st chapter, in which he got drunk, beat the crap out of an innocent man, and raped a teenage boy. So we know he's the one who attacked the boy on this ship - and we watch as gradually. thanks to the perspicacious surgeon, Sumner, the truth comes out and Drax gets chained in the hold. But, hey, we're only about half-way done with the novel; what else will happen? As noted in previous posts, this is a novel as dark as they come (at one point I misremembered the title as The Dark Water), and we begin to see that there's another nefarious scheme afoot; the captain has plotted to sink the ship - but slowly enough so that the valuable whale oil can be offloaded to a sister ship - in order to claim the insurance. Obviously, that's not going to work out so well, in the ice-choked waters off Greenland. There is no character in this novel who's benevolent, honest, or even likable - Sumner comes the closest, as he seems to be trying to redeem himself, but Ian McGuire does fill us in on his back story, his discharge from the British army because of his scheme to extort valuables from a man seeking help for his wounded son in an army hospital, a stupid action that leads to the death of several British soldiers (aside from its obvious violation of medical ethics). Though all whaling stories live under the shadow of Moby-Dick, this novel is Moby-Dick in reverse (as well as whodunnit in reverse): the ship is star-crossed not because the the captain's obsessions but because everyone aboard appears to be a ruined soul - a voyage of the damned.

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