For as long as there have been novels there have been novels of the sea. The eponymous hero of Robinson Crusoe, widely regarded as the first novel in English, is all but synonymous with the figure of the island castaway. Yet it is as a "mariner" that he is introduced in that novel's full title, and he undertakes not one but two ill-fated voyages before the one that leads him to his desert island.
From Defoe the lineage of maritime fiction can be traced almost without interruption to the end of the 20th century – the last complete novel in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series appeared in 1999 – though its apotheosis, many would argue, was reached in 1851, with the publication of Moby-Dick. Among readers, clearly, there is an abiding appetite for tales of the sea, but that alone can hardly account for a continuity of tradition that has few if any equals among literary genres.
This longevity, surely, is due at least in part to our fascination with the sea itself, and in particular to its hold on the imagination of authors. For novelists, the sea is the gift that keeps on giving. For a start, there are its attractions as a setting. The sea, after all, does what no landscape can: it moves. One moment, it may be nothing more than scenery, the next it is an inexorable force, sweeping mere human fates before it.
The sea can be much more than a backdrop, then, but it can also be less. For some writers, the sea is a canvas of seductive blankness, a surface from which the clutter of civilised existence has been scoured. Against such an emptiness, the dramatic force of a narrative is magnified, lending heroic proportions to its struggles. It is the latter approach that Ian McGuire favours in The North Water, a muscular but finely- wrought tale that satisfies traditional expectations while bringing to the genre a dark elegance of style and an unsparing vision of individual morality.
We are introduced first to Henry Drax, an itinerant harpooner animated only by his own savage compulsions and sustained by an implacable instinct for survival. He joins the crew of the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaling ship bound for the Arctic. Her captain is complicit in a murky enterprise – we learn early on of a plot to wreck the ship for insurance money – and is not inclined to be choosy about who he takes aboard. This suits Drax nicely: he has just murdered and violated (in that order) a young boy and wishes to make himself scarce.
Also boarding the Volunteer is Patrick Sumner, a former army surgeon whose military career ended in disgrace during the siege of Delhi. For Sumner, as for Drax, an Arctic whaler is a place where few questions will be asked, where his misdeeds may go undiscovered. Unlike Drax, however, Sumner is burdened by his past. Although his moral instincts have been somewhat corroded, he is nonetheless deeply preoccupied by notions of wickedness and culpability. Drax, on the other hand, is untroubled by any such distractions. For the harpooner, "each new moment is merely a gate he walks through, an opening he pierces with himself".
The stage is set, then, for just the kind of elemental confrontation that tradition demands. From the beginning, too, it is clear that it will take place amidst a sizeable cargo of philosophical baggage. Here again the precedents are well established; seascapes have always provided a canvas not only for grand struggles but for big ideas. But whereas Moby-Dick looked to Locke and Kant, the colours nailed to the Volunteer's mast are unmistakably Nietzschean; even her name, with its echoes of volition and the will to power, seems slyly allusive.
In fact, the novel alerts us to its intentions in its opening words: "Behold the man" (Ecce Homo was the title of Nietzsche's final eccentric summation of his philosophical project). The man we are invited to behold is Henry Drax, and he is not a pretty sight. A creature of "fierce and surly appetites", he is bestial and unreflecting in pursuit of his urges, yet he is capable too of dim epiphanies. His atrocities, he believes, are acts "of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations" and he himself is a "wild, unholy engineer", insights that remind us of Nietzsche's "free spirits", those "investigators to the point of cruelty" who have dispensed entirely with obsolete notions of good and evil.
But while its philosophical ambitions are at times overt, it would be wrong to give the impression that The North Water is weighed down by its big ideas. As a storyteller, McGuire has a sure and unwavering touch, and he has engineered a superbly compelling suspense narrative. Like Dr Stephen Maturin, Patrick O'Brian's rather more upstanding ship's surgeon, Sumner struggles to keep his nose out of the opium bottle. Once at sea, he holes up in his cabin, minds his own business and sets about depleting his own medicine chest. Drax is quick to take his measure, and soon guesses at the shadows in the surgeon's past. Sumner, though a bit addled, is not entirely oblivious. When a cabin boy is found murdered and sodomised, Drax pins the blame on one of his shipmates. Roused from his torpor by the horrific nature of the crime, the surgeon sets about uncovering the truth.
The Volunteer and her crew, however, are soon overtaken by greater misfortunes. The plan to wreck the ship goes predictably awry, and when it does the crew must contend not only with the monster in its midst, but with the far greater brutality of the long Arctic winter. As the body count rises, the tattered morality that Sumner clings to begins to look forlorn. "Them's just words," Drax tells him. "The law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer."
As a stylist, too, McGuire is never less than assured. Though he keeps the prose lean for the most part, he allows himself occasional flourishes. While these occasionally misfire (the dockside air, perplexingly, has “a bathetic pong”), there are many instances of arresting brilliance. A musket shot to the head produces “a brief carnation of blood and gore”; a bear Sumner pursues is lost in “the blizzard’s ashen iterations”.
The North Water is traditional to the last. There will be a sole survivor, of course, just as only Ishmael survived the destruction of the Pequod. It is by no means clear who this survivor will be, however, and the well-tuned plot keeps us guessing until the final pages. But McGuire's deference to tradition is not excessive. He has produced a fine addition to the maritime canon, but one that revivifies it with a thoroughly modern acuity of style. He has established himself, too, as a writer of exceptional craft and confidence, one who is no doubt capable of approaching other genres and of making them entirely his own.
Paraic O’Donnell is the author of The Maker of Swans (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)