Excerpt from The North Water by Ian McGuire, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The North Water

A Novel

by Ian McGuire

The North Water by Ian McGuire X
The North Water by Ian McGuire
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2016, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2017, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Behold the man.

He shuffles out of Clappison's courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air—turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning-piss stink of just-emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head, and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money's worth. At the end of Charterhouse Lane he turns north onto Wincolmlee, past the De La Pole Tavern, past the sperm candle manufactory and the oil-seed mill. Above the warehouse roofs, he can see the swaying tops of main- and mizzenmasts, hear the shouts of the stevedores and the thump of mallets from the cooperage nearby. His shoulder rubs against the smoothed red brick, a dog runs past, a cart piled high with rough-cut timber. He breathes in again and runs his tongue along the haphazard ramparts of his teeth. He senses a fresh need, small but insistent, arising inside him, a new requirement aching to be met. His ship leaves at first light, but before then there is something that must be done. He peers around and for a moment wonders what it is. He notices the pink smell of blood from the pork butcher's, the grimy sway of a woman's skirts. He thinks of flesh, animal, human, then thinks again—it is not that kind of ache, he decides, not yet; it is the milder one, the one less pressing.

He turns around and walks back towards the tavern. The bar is almost empty at this hour in the morning. There is a low fire in the grate and a smell of frying. He delves in his pocket, but all he finds there are bread crumbs, a jackknife, and a halfpenny coin.

"Rum," he says.

He pushes the single halfpenny across the bar. The barman looks down at the coin and shakes his head.

"I'm leaving in the morning," he explains, "on the Volunteer. I'll give you my note of hand."

The barman snorts.

"Do I look like a fool?" he says.

The man shrugs and thinks a moment.

"Head or tails then. This good knife of mine against a tot of your rum."

He puts the jackknife on the bar, and the barman picks it up and looks at it carefully. He unfolds the blade and tests it against the ball of his thumb.

"It's a fine knife, that one," the man says. "Hant never failed me yet."

The barman takes a shilling from his pocket and shows it. He tosses the coin and slaps it down hard. They both look. The barman nods, picks up the knife, and stows it in his waistcoat pocket.

"And now you can fuck off," he says.

The man's expression doesn't alter. He shows no sign of irritation or surprise. It is as though losing the knife is part of a greater and more complex plan which only he is privy to. After a moment, he bends down, tugs off his sea boots, and puts them side by side on top of the bar.

"Toss again," he says.

The barman rolls his eyes and turns away.

"I don't want your fucking boots," he says.

"You have my knife," the man says. "You can't back away now."

"I don't want no fucking boots," the barman says again.

"You can't back away."

"I'll do whatever the fuck I like," the barman says.

There's a Shetlander leaning at the other end of the bar watching them. He is wearing a stocking cap and canvas britches caked with filth. His eyes are red and loose and drunken.

"I'll buy ye a drink myself," he says, "if ye just shut the fuck up."

The man looks back at him. He has fought Shetlanders before in Lerwick and in Peterhead. They are not clever fighters, but they are stubborn and hard to finish off. This one has a rusty blubber-knife pushed into his belt and a gamy, peevish look about him. After a moment's pause, the man nods.

"I'd thank you for that," he says. "I've been whoring all night and the whistle's dry."

Excerpted from The North Water by Ian McGuire. Copyright © 2016 by Ian McGuire. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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