The Night Ship, a review by Joanna

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The Night Ship
Jess Kidd

Canongate books

400 pages

Published Aug 4, 2022

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The Night Ship is an evocatively written historical fiction novel, by an author who is new to me, based on the true story of the wreck of the Batavia on the Abrolhos islands off Western Australia in 1629. I had not heard of this previously, although suspect the story would be well known to Australian readers. It features fantastical elements, including mythical creatures known as the Bullebak and the Bunyip, but I wouldn’t describe it as fantasy. It’s not a cheery tale, as it deals with the cruelty shown by man to his fellow humans – even in desperate situations, and the author is not seeking to rewrite history. I’m not sure what prompted me to request this, as it’s very different to my usual choice of genres, but I’m glad I read it even if I didn’t exactly enjoy it.

In 1629, the brand new Dutch merchant ship Batavia set sail for the East Indies, carrying goods, soldiers, some well-to-do families, as well as the lower class below-decks passengers, and a significant amount of treasure. Nine year old Mayken is travelling to Batavia (which is now Jakarta) in the company of her nursemaid, to be reunited with the wealthy father she has never met, after the death of her mother. A mischievous inquisitive child, Mayken is soon roaming the ship and making friends amongst the crew, but as one tragedy after another befalls them, she becomes convinced that a sinister eel-like creature is stalking her. 360 years later, lonely Gil, who has also just lost his mother, arrives on Beacon island to stay with cantankerous  crayfisherman Joss, his only remaining relative. Fascinated by the stories about the wreck, and the ghost of Little May who is reputed to haunt the island, Gil will struggle to find his place amongst the loners who inhabit the desolate archipelago, especially when the community’s most powerful family take against him.
Told in omniscient third person present, this alternates chapters between 1928-9 and 1989 as the two motherless children, from very different backgrounds, face their new realities and defy the expectations of their carers to make sense of their situations. Their personalities are very different – Mayken is gregarious and inherently brave and kind, without the airs and graces that might be expected of a child of her status, whereas Gil has been profoundly damaged by an itinerant life with his drug-addicted single mother. Both get on better with adults than with other children, and both retreat into their imaginations when the going gets tough. This was not an easy read, because the heavy foreshadowing and what Gil learns about the shipwreck mean we know there are few happy endings for the 17th century characters, and the cynicism and brutality shown towards Gil by adults who really should know better was pretty depressing. “We don’t need monsters, Gil, we are the monsters.” and “The dead can’t hurt you, Gil. It’s the living you need to watch out for.” being representative quotes.
I did find the pace of this rather slow, not helped by the continuous switching between timelines – some chapters are only one page long. Still, it’s a powerful thought-provoking book about a particularly horrific episode in Australian history by a talented writer, that should appeal to those who enjoy more literary fiction. It’s worth googling for images of the Abrolhos – it seems remarkable that anyone could’ve survived there for so long.
A special mention for the gorgeous cover image – it would be worth buying the treebook version just for this!
Content warnings for violence towards children and innocents, and a particularly distressing if brief scene of animal cruelty.
Thanks to NetGalley and Canongate for the ARC. I am posting this honest review voluntarily. The Night Ship is available now.

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