About 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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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
About 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)