#BookReview The Night Ship by Jess Kidd

The Night ShipAbout the Book

1629. Embarking on a journey in search of her father, a young girl called Mayken boards the Batavia, the most impressive sea vessel of the age. During the long voyage, this curious and resourceful child must find her place in the ship’s busy world, and she soon uncovers shadowy secrets above and below deck. As tensions spiral, the fate of the ship and all on board becomes increasingly uncertain.

1989. Gil, a boy mourning the death of his mother, is placed in the care of his irritable and reclusive grandfather. Their home is a shack on a tiny fishing island off the Australian coast, notable only for its reefs and wrecked boats. This is no place for a teenager struggling with a dark past and Gil’s actions soon get him noticed by the wrong people.

Format: Hardback (384 pages)         Publisher: Canongate
Publication date: 11th August 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The story unfolds in alternating chapters moving between 1629 aboard the Batavia, and 1989 on Beacon Island (also known as Batavia’s graveyard) off the cost of Western Australia. Initially I imagined I would be more drawn to Mayken’s story than to Gil’s. As I expected, the author does a brilliant job of conjuring up the awful realities of daily life onboard a ship travelling thousands of miles on a voyage likely to take many months. The conditions for the more privileged passengers, including Mayken and her nursemaid Imke, are bad enough but lower down in the ship, what Mayken comes to know as ‘the Below World’, there is horrendous squalor, overcrowding and disease. Meanwhile the captain and officers feast in the Great Cabin enjoying fine food and wine.  As I said, I expected to be captivated by Mayken’s story – and I was – but gradually I became totally invested in Gil’s story too. It’s the story of a lonely, sensitive boy transported to a small island where he knows no-one except for his gruff grandfather and the way of life is completely new to him.

You might not expect two children, separated by over three hundred years, to have much in common but the really clever thing about The Night Ship is the way the author creates subtle connections between them that are like little echoes reverberating down through the centuries.

Both Mayken and Gil have lost their mothers in circumstances they are either encouraged or unwilling to talk about. Mayken is travelling across the world to live with her father. Gil does not know his father and has been taken in, rather reluctantly, by his grandfather.  Mayken’s desire to explore the lower decks of the Batavia involves her disguising herself as a boy whilst Gil is fascinated by the contents of his late grandmother’s wardrobe.  Both children are told stories of a fantastical monster whose appearance may presage death. Mayken, who loves a ghoulish story, becomes convinced this monster, named Bullebak, is stalking the bowels of the ship and must be captured and destroyed.  Gil is told a similar story about a mythical creature, a bunyip. While Mayken finds companionship from amongst the Batavia’s crew, in particularly the lovely Holdfast, Gil forms a bond with a companion quite different in nature, the ‘invariably pissed off looking’ Enkidu.

The real literary magic happens in chapters 33 and 34 when the two stories connect in the most brilliant way, as if a door has been opened between the 20th century and the 17th century.  It’s clever. I repeat, it’s clever.

Normally the mention of magical realism in relation to a book would have me running a mile but I had no difficulty in accepting that a tragedy such as the sinking of the Batavia with the loss of so many lives might leave traces in the place where it happened; and I don’t just mean the physical finds being discovered by the team of scientists working on Beacon Island. In the final pages, that more supernatural connection between the two children happens again and it’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

In The Night Ship, the author has taken a true story and used it to create something magical. I loved it.

I received a proof copy courtesy of Canogate via Readers First.

In three words: Haunting, immersive, enthralling

Try something similar: The White Hare by Jane Johnson

Jess KiddAbout the Author

Jess was brought up in London as part of a large family from County Mayo. She is the author of three acclaimed novels for adults, Himself, The Hoarder and Things in Jars. In 2017, Kidd won the Costa Short Story Award and in 2020 she was picked by The Times as one of the best emerging Irish writers. (Photo: Author website)

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#BookReview Thea and Denise by Caroline Bond

Thea and DeniseAbout the Book

Two women. An open road. The trip of a lifetime.

Thea is confident, sorted, determined to have fun, but there are sorrows beneath the surface of her life. Denise is struggling under the weight of her many commitments and in desperate need of some excitement.

When these polar opposites meet, and unexpectedly become friends, they realise they’re both looking to escape. So begins a road trip that leads them far from home and yet closer to their true selves.

But they can’t outrun their pasts forever and when things start to get complicated, both women have an important decision to make. Do they give up or keep going? Turn around or drive on?

Format: Hardback (368 pages)    Publisher: Corvus
Publication date: 2nd June 2022 Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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My Review

As might be guessed from the title, Thea and Denise is inspired by the author’s favourite film, Thelma and Louise. In the Acknowledgements, Caroline describes her book as ‘a very English take’ on that film. It’s a film I haven’t seen myself but I’m guessing it doesn’t include a lot of swimming in the cold North Sea or wearing one of your mother’s old nighties.

Denise and Thea’s friendship develops following a series of coincidences, one of which is a meeting that takes place in the ladies’ toilet in the Grosvenor Hotel. They seem unlikely friends with Thea initially taking the upper hand and Denise following her lead, prompted as much as anything by an incident involving an exploding freezer drawer.  However, the dynamic subtly changes as their road trip progresses. Suddenly it’s Denise who is taking charge as a result of a new-found confidence and who encourages Thea to open up about her true reasons for making the trip.   As Lillian, Denise’s mother, later observes, ‘They were chalk and cheese but somehow the combination worked’.

I found Thea’s motivation for embarking on the road trip easier to understand. She’s running away from things she can’t – or doesn’t want to – face, trying to persuade herself that what she’s doing is for the good of others and not just a reaction to her own fears. It’s an act of desperation whereas with Denise it felt more like an act borne out of a general discontent.

The road trip includes some fun scenes. My favourite was their trip to a Rage Room, the existence of such a thing being completely new to me.

The three women in the book – Denise, Thea and Lillian – are all interesting, well-developed characters. I particularly liked the portrayal of Lillian as an older woman living an independent lifestyle. The men in the book – Thea’s ex-husband, Marc, and Denise’s husband, Simon, play minor roles and neither are particularly attractive characters. Simon, in particular, seems to want a wife who will fulfil the role of housekeeper and administrator rather than that of life companion or lover.

Although I wasn’t completely convinced the epilogue was necessary, I enjoyed the way the book deftly explored the nature of female friendship and tapped into that feeling we’ve probably all had at some point – wouldn’t it be great to just run away?

I received a review copy via Readers First.

In three words: Engaging, insightful, heart-warming

Try something similarThree Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson

Caroline BondAbout the Author

Caroline Bond was born in Scarborough and studied English at Oxford University before working as a market researcher for 25 years. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Leeds Trinity University. She lives in Leeds with her husband. Caroline has three adult children. Thea and Denise is her fifth novel. (Photo: Twitter profile)

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