Golden Hill by Frances Spufford and North Water by Ian McGuire are both novels written by academics who have brought their considerable historical prowess to the field of fiction. Interestingly, both books in their way are frontier stories, exploring the borderline between the European civilization which the pioneers brought with them into the New World, and the unmediated challenges that force them to question everything they thought they knew. They are escape stories, following the routes of people in flight from their pasts.
In Golden Hill Francis Spufford brilliantly conveys the life of early settlers in New York during the mid-eighteenth century when the entire population consisted of only seven thousand souls. It is an irresistible confection that calls to mind the work of Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe – a rollicking rake’s progress that charts the progress of Richard Smith, a mysterious Englishman who arrives in Manhattan bearing a bill of exchange for a thousand pounds, who meets suspicion and resistance when he tries to cash this exorbitant sum. Full of frills, thrills and furbelows the novel is a romp from start to finish – the high point a rooftop chase across the Dutch gables of Broad Way.
North Water is a different beast altogether, beast being the operative word as it concerns itself with the existential conflict between good and evil as manifested in the characters of Patrick Sumner, an opium-addicted physician who has fallen from grace, and Henry Drax, a cannibalistic sodomite who are thrown together on the whaling ship Venturer on a voyage from Hull into the treacherous waters of the Arctic Circle during the late 1850s. An expert in American realist literature, McGuire pulls no punches with his pungent, greasy prose, “He feels the future gradually show itself. He smells its hot perfume hanging in the Arctic air, as a dog smells the rank requirements of a bitch.” There is a sense of compression to the story which is played out within the confines of the ship and subsequently a makeshift camp on land. Tempers flare and the stakes are high. The story – and the language used to describe it – is like a powder keg that could go off at any time. It’s a muscular read, a literary work out. I couldn’t put it down.