This is another book from the 2016 Man Booker longlist. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be my type of book.
It is 1859 and the owner of the whaling ship Volunteer is putting together a crew. Amongst that crew is Henry Drax, a harpooner who within the opening pages shows himself to be a murderer. Also aboard is Patrick Sumner, a decent but weak man addicted to opium who serves as ship’s doctor. The rest of the crew members are a rather unpleasant lot, and the trip soon becomes nightmarish with violence being routine. And, as expected in the Arctic setting, there is soon a struggle for survival.
The main conflicts are good versus evil and man versus nature. The cruelty of nature is matched, if not surpassed, by the savagery of the men. The book immediately calls to mind Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but there are also echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Because of its blood and violence, it is reminiscent of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
It is the character of Henry Drax that is most memorable. He is totally amoral. He is described as a man with “fierce and sullen appetites.” He is not burdened by his past, unlike Sumner, and he also “has no fear of the future, no sense of its power or meaning.” He is motivated entirely by his compulsions; in a conversation with Sumner, Drax says, “’I’m a doer, not a thinker, me. I follow my inclination.’” Lying comes naturally to him: “Words are just noises in a certain order, and he can use them any way he wishes. Pigs grunt, ducks quack, and men tell lies.” When he kills a polar bear, “Drax feels pleasure at this work, arousal, a craftsman’s sense of pride. Death, he believes, is a kind of making, a kind of building up. What was one thing, he thinks, is become something else.” When asked about good and evil, he replies, “’Them’s just words’” and “’The law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer.’”
But the novel is one of action, not one of character. And there is definitely a lot of action, most of it very violent: seals and whales are slaughtered, boys are sexually assaulted, a man’s arm is ripped away by a bear, men’s brains are bashed in. This book is not for the faint-hearted because blood and gore abound. The descriptions are very graphic: “The air is filled with a fetid blast of butchery and excrement” and “The top portion of the Shetlander’s skull detaches and flies backwards against the steeply pitched canvas roof, leaving a broad red bull’s-eye and, around it, a fainter aureole of purplish brain matter” and “the back of Price’s head explodes in a brief carnation of blood and bone” and “The blocks of blubber they slice and peel away are miscolored and gelatinous – much more brown than pink. Swung up onto the deck, they drip not blood, as usual, but some foul straw-colored coagulation like the unspeakable rectal oozings of a human corpse” and “As soon as he pierces the cavity wall, a pint or more of foul and flocculent pus, turbid and pinkish gray, squirts unhindered . . . The discharge is fibrinous, bloody, and thick as Cornish cream; it pulses out from the narrow opening like the last twitching apogee of a monstrous ejaculation.”
This is a novel about death, violence, betrayal, and depravity, all depicted in gruesome detail. With its focus on man and nature’s destructiveness, it is not uplifting. I will be truly surprised it this title makes it on the Man Booker shortlist.