“North Water” by Ian McGuire (Henry Holt & Co., 2016)


North Water is a nineteenth century whaling story by British author Ian McGuire. It is not for the faint of heart or a weak stomach, but it also smacks of a stereotypical “man’s novel” with over the top violence, graphic description and cruelty. While it is well written, it is ultimately about men wanting to hurt each other in despicable ways, and you have to really ask yourself: why would anyone want to read about that?

The book opens with Henry Drax, a harpooner, who is broke and down and out again, and proceeds to knock a black child unconscious and then rape him; it is done to show his depravity; all it did for me was make me hate this book. He joins the crew of the Volunteer and faces off against an ex-army surgeon named Patrick Sumner who has been through his own trials and tribulations. The two pit against each other on a seemingly doomed voyage.

For those who enjoy the over-description of this harsh world in this harsh time on an old whaling ship, as men are being men in extreme conditions and a harsh arctic winter, then this is the book for you. For those looking for something more engaging and actually worth reading, move along to the next title.

Originally written on July 12, 2016 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Ahab’s Wife, or the Star-Gazer” by Sena Jeter Naslund (William Morrow, 1999)

Ahab's Wife
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Ahab’s Wife serves admirably as a companion book to Melville’s Moby-Dick and having read both, I think I can safely say that if Herman Melville were to read Ahab’s Wife, he would be more than happy with the duty and accuracy Naslund devotes to the period, the prose, and its homage to Melville’s opus.

This is the life story of Una, the wife of Ahab – the peg-legged determined-bordering-on-insane captain of the Pequod in search of his white whale.  The cover of the book depicts a Puritan-clothed  woman on a harsh beach looking out into a rough sea, while further down the beach lies the broken hulk of an old ship.  It creates images and ideas of a worrying woman left at home for years at a time to tend to house and children, while her husband is out braving the sea, fighting giants monsters in his man’s world.  One would think this a book about her everyday actions, her chores, her repetitive characteristics, and while this is part of the book, there is so much more going on in Una’s life with her triumphs and tribulations, her loves and deaths, her dangerous adventures, and her happy times at home.  This is what makes Ahab’s Wife a welcome companion to Moby-Dick, for while Ahab’s is a story of adventure and danger, Una’s is just as much so.

The book begins, as all life stories should, with a birth, only Una’s mother is all alone in a cabin and naturally it is a birth that almost kills her.  Una’s life is a harsh one in Kentucky and before she is ten, her mother sends her away to her aunt’s.  Una’s father is a devout Christian, while Una is an atheist from a young age, choosing not to blindly believe in what her father tells her to believe.  Her mother fearing for her life, sends her to the distant coast of New England to live with her aunt and uncle in a lighthouse.  And so begins the next chapter in her life, with a different family, in a different place.  With the arrival of two men who come to upgrade the lighthouse, she falls in love with both of them – even though she is still young – knowing that one will be her husband one day.  At the age of eighteen, she leaves the island and the lighthouse for the mainland of Boston and then Nantucket getting by on simple work until she finds the same two men whom she loves on a whaling ship.  Disguising herself as a young boy she joins the crew and experiences the whaling life of her future husband.  It is here that she first sees The Pequod and meets Ahab, who by then is an old man but still respectable and honorable.  Ahab is the one to marry Una to Kit when her existence on the ship, love for that man, and her femininity are all revealed.

A whale stoves in the ship and Una spends many days on a small boat with the remaining crew reduced to cannibalism – harking to the story of Moby-Dick as well as the story of the whale ship Essex, which was the impetus for Melville’s work.  It is on the return journey to Nantucket that the other love of her life dies tragically and her husband Kit essentially goes insane.  Upon returning to land and leaving her husband due to his condition, Una’s life slows down and her relationship with Ahab begins until their marriage and happiness together.  It is here that the story of Moby-Dick truly begins and the reader gets to meet the familiar characters of the classic book.  But while Ahab spends years away from home, Una’s life goes on with the birth of a child and the struggles of her life.  It is upon the return and meeting of Ishmael that Una learns of the doomed story of Ahab, his white whale, and his death.

The book could be considered technically over at this point, but this is the story of Una, who is still very much alive.  The rest of her life is spent interacting with Ishmael and even meeting and interacting with the slave who fought for his freedom, Frederick Douglass.  And while she never forgets her life with Ahab, she eventually finds another husband and in the waning years of her life is happy once more.

What makes Ahab’s Wife a truly impressive book is not just its intended mimicry of Moby-Dick with the crossing over of characters, similar layout of the book with many chapters and illustrations, and actual scenes involving the same locations in both books such as the church with the pulpit carved to imitate the bow of a ship which the same preacher from Moby-Dick climbs the ladder to the top of, screaming of hellfire and damnation; it is the prose and how Naslund writes that truly emulates the style of Melville, making this a truly important work of literature deserving a place in the shelves with Melville, James and Hawthorne.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on February 17th, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.