The North Water book: what is the novel by Ian McGuire about - and is it the same as the BBC series?

BBC Two have adapted the book for screen, in a five-part thriller series directed by British screenwriter Andrew Haigh

BBC Two’s new five-part miniseries is set to take viewers on a treacherous journey across the Arctic, based on a book by Ian McGuire.

The North Water is a 2016 book, set in 1859 and drowning in  violence, money and lies.

The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker award and was one of the New York Times best selling books of that year.

So, what is it about and will the new BBC series be reflective of the novel? This is what you need to know.

What is Ian McGuire’s The North Water about?

McGuire opens the book with violence and the hard-to-believe realities of the whale-hunting industry during the mid-19th century.

The ‘north water’ referred to is that of the north water Polynya, a hunting ground for ships at the time.

During the time in which the book is set, the whale oil industry was fast being overtaken by paraffin and coal, making the industry futile and full of desperate financiers and crew.

The novel involves language of rape and extreme violence, used to portray the “hunt or be hunted” attitude of the harpooners.

In the novel, Henry Drax is the angriest, dog-eat-dog man of ‘The Volunteer’, a ship owned by Baxter and captained by Cpt. Arthur Brownlee.

The ship picks up crew in Hull before continuing onto Lerwick, where more desperate men climb aboard for a six-month voyage. Among those in Lerwick is Patrick Sumner, an Irish surgeon who was injured while serving in the army.

He plans to see out the six months before returning to Ireland and inheriting property.

The motives of those aboard the ship are deceitful and as treacherous as the Arctic waters - the dynamic is not helped by Drax’s animal behaviour and his ally, Cavendish.

The Guardian wrote of the book in 2016: “The North Water is as much about the human relationship with the wild as it is about the relationships of one character to another. When things go wrong the whalers are no match for the Arctic’s vast indifference.

“ They can slaughter a polar bear or strip the carcass of a whale, but in the face of this landscape they become impotent, impermanent, flailing out in violence.”

McGuire focuses much of his research and interests on American realist literature, which could be why his research of the situations found on these whale-hunting ships was so in depth, resulting in a book of historical accuracy - the whale hunting industry was cruel, corrupt and blood-thirsty.

The book has eerie overtones of corruption and ulterior motives, Baxter has appointed Brownlee as captain despite his previous ship, Percival, “crushed to matchwood by a berg”, 18 men dying and no fortune returned.

Brownlee’s desperation to make a success of the mission is not for the survival of the crewmembers, rather his own fortune.

Is the BBC adaptation true to the book?

BBC Two’s upcoming thriller series keeps close to the book in its story, but less so in the detail.

Director Andrew Haigh told the BBC: “Ian McGuire’s novel vividly evokes the brutal beauty of the Arctic environment and I knew I had to try and bring a similar realism to the show.

"Despite the obvious challenges, shooting in the Arctic seemed the very best option. I wanted us to feel the biting wind, the bitter cold. I wanted to capture that fear that comes from being so far from civilization.”

While Drax - played by Scrubs star Colin Farrell - is as abrupt, dangerous and intimidating as the books portrays, it seems unlikely that the BBC will incorprate the infamous brutal description of the harpooner raping a young boy.

However, the series does revolve around the same time period and on the same ship, The Volunteer. The cast - including Stephen Graham (Help) as Captain Brownlee and Jack O’Connell as Patrick Sumner - all share the same attributes as that of the book’s characters.

The screen adaptation is also likely to focus more on the internal frustrations of Sumner as he clashes with Drax, whereas the brutality of Drax in the book makes him the one the reader does not forget.

When is The North Water on BBC Two and where can I buy the book?

The North Water begins on BBC Two at 9.30pm on Friday 10 September.

Subsequent episodes air weekly on BBC Two on Fridays at 9.30pm for five consecutive weeks.

The episodes will also be available on BBC iPlayer.

Ian McGuire’s book is available to buy from Amazon, Waterstones and various other booksellers.

A message from the editor:

Thank you for reading. NationalWorld is a new national news brand, produced by a team of journalists, editors, video producers and designers who live and work across the UK. Find out more about who’s who in the team, and our editorial values. We want to start a community among our readers, so please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and keep the conversation going.

Related topics:

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.