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

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Monday, June 19, 2017

The spiritual aspect of The North Water

Ian McGuire's The North Water does have me "hooked," and I'm just nearing the conclusion. It's not a book for everyone; it's at times crude, cruel, and gruesome, and all of the major characters - the men aboard a whaling ship - are corrupt and immoral in all sorts of ways. But: McGuire writes as well as anyone, he knows how to build tension and hold reader attention, he keeps the plot short and taut, so if you're not turned off by the atrocities of the first few chapters you're probably, like me, along for the whole trip. The book is a strange mix of an abundance of talent, of scrupulous research, and arcane vocabulary - and at the end a great sailing-adventure tale, as the men aboard the Volunteer face one catastrophe after another. I've commented in earlier posts about the inevitable comparisons with Moby-Dick, and there's one element to add to that: toward the end of the novel discussions about religion and morality rise to the fore, as the ship's surgeon, Sumner, nearly freezes to death and is resuscitated by a sole British missionary, who talks to him about the grace of god - and whom Sumner crudely, and rudely, rebuffs. (Earlier in the novel Sumner had conversations with one of the whaling men, Otto, who is a Swedenborgian and believes man's fate is in the hands of a benevolent if elusive god.) So the world of the sailing vessel, which seems so isolated and forlorn (and fallen) is also part of a vast universe - a speck in that universe - and at least some of the men try to comprehend the conflict between man's will (and evil nature) and the benevolent, yet absent, god. Melville wrestled with these issues as well - as about a million doctoral dissertations can attest.

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