Despite the rough opening that made me question whether I would want to push through the rest of the story, I ended up liking The North Water quite a bit. The arctic setting and seafaring plot piqued my imagination from the beginning and the story kept me engaged throughout, even when the book diverted into long backstory or digressions that did not seem to move the story forward. In retrospect, these “side-quests” contributed nicely to the ultimate point of the story. OK, here’s where the spoilers begin, so if you haven’t read the book, and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now.
Though I generally liked reading the book throughout, the last scene tied it together so nicely that I think it took the book from being enjoyable-but-forgettable to one that I will reference as I’m plotting my own work. In this scene, the protagonist, Dr. Patrick Sumner, finds himself at a zoo, staring through the bars at a caged polar bear. The realization for the reader is that all men have a caged bear inside.
The entire preceding novel builds up to this moment by following Sumner through disasters and conflicts that slowly wear away the bars that restrain his inner bear. His foil in the story is Henry Drax, and while Sumner resists descending into savagery, Drax embraces violence. The two men clash with survival at stake, and though Sumner never completely lets go of his civility, he ultimately kills Drax in brutal fashion.
As the novel closes with Sumner looking at the bear though the bars of the zoo enclosure–and the bear returning his gaze–the reader realizes that the vicious wildness of the bear is barely contained below the surface of Sumner’s character. The only difference between Sumner and Drax is Sumner’s ability to cage his bear.
Of course, there’s more to the story, but if my stories can end with a similarly powerful moment, I would consider it a great success.