The Night Ship by Jess Kidd (Blog Tour Review)

Jess Kidd’s fourth novel is based on a true story: the ill-fated voyage of the Batavia, which set off from the Netherlands in 1628, bound for Indonesia, but wrecked on the Abrolhos Islands off the western coast of Australia in June 1629. If you look into it at all, you find a grim story of mutiny and murder. But we experience the voyage, and view its historical legacy, through the eyes of two motherless children: Mayken, travelling on the Batavia to be reunited with her merchant father abroad; and Gil, who, in 1989, moves in with his grandfather at his Australian beach hut and observes archaeologists diving into the wreck.

Chapters alternate between the two time periods. Mayken is in the care of her old nursemaid, Imke, who has second sight. As Imke’s health fails, Mayken goes semi-feral, dressing up as a cabin boy to explore the belowdecks world. Gil, a tender, traumatized boy in the company of rough grown-ups, becomes obsessed with the local dig and is given a pet tortoise – named Enkidu to match his own full name, Gilgamesh. Mayken and Gil both have to navigate a harsh adult world with its mixture of benevolent guardians and cruel strangers.

An explicit connection between the protagonists is set up early on, when a neighbour tells Gil there’s a “dead girl who haunts the island … Old-time ghost, from the shipwreck,” known as Little May. But there are little links throughout. For instance, both have a rote story to explain their mother’s death, and both absorb legends about a watery monster (the Dutch Bullebak and the Aboriginal Bunyip) that pulls people under. The symmetry of the story lines is most evident in the shorter chapters towards the end, such as the rapid-fire pair of 33–34.

These echoes, some subtle and some overt, are the saving grace of an increasingly bleak novel. Don’t be fooled by the focus on children’s experience: this is a dark, dark story, with only pinpricks of light at the end for one of the two. In terms of similar fiction I’ve read, the tone is more Wakenhyrst than The Essex Serpent; more Jamrach’s Menagerie than Devotion. (It didn’t help that I’d just read Julia and the Shark, an exceptional children’s book with a maritime setting and bullying/mental health themes.) I engaged more with the contemporary strand – as is pretty much always the case for me with a dual timeline – yet appreciated the atmosphere and the research behind the historical segments. This doesn’t match Things in Jars, but I was still pleased to have the chance to try something else by Jess Kidd.

With thanks to Canongate for my free copy for review.

 

I was delighted to be part of the social media tour for The Night Ship. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.

20 responses

  1. Your assessment of this book is similar to others I have read. Probably I’d pick it up to read if I found it whilst on shelving duty at the library, but try no harder than that to source it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Who knows, you might engage with it a bit more than I did. The central characters are appealing.

      Like

      1. I look for reasons (excuses?) not to lengthen the TBR list!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice to see Jamrach’s Menagerie given a mention but I think I’ll give this one a miss. Rather too much bleakness in the real world just at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true, everything is terrible (so might as well read).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really, really loved this, but you’re right about the increasing darkness. That ending (well, half of it anyway) is really unflinching (and I read it immediately after another not-happy ending in a different book!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I only looked at your blog review after finishing mine so as to avoid the spoilers. I guess the foreshadowing should have meant I knew what to expect, but I was hoping for a little more jollity — Things in Jars managed to be more charming.

      Like

      1. TIJ is what made me fall in love with Kidd and I could see how TNS might have the opposite effect (or at least not such a strong effect) on readers who are new to her work.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I just skimmed your review because I’m waiting breathlessly for my copy, which won’t arrive until OCTOBER! Boo hoo! In the meantime, I don’t want to know much more about it. I just love Jess Kidd.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope it lives up to your expectations! The only other thing besides this and Things in Jars that I’d tried by Kidd was The Hoarder (Mr. Flood’s Last Resort in USA?), which I DNFed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I liked it, too. I think that’s all she’s written so far.

        Like

      2. There’s one more novel called Himself, and then one children’s book.

        Like

  5. I’ve not read anything by her yet, but I do have Things in Jars and The Hoarder on my shelves, and it sounds like those would be a good place to start. She’s coming to my local indie bookshop in a fortnight – but I have booked for the NT screening of Much Ado…, so this makes me less sad about missing her event, although I would have gone under other circumstances.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you enjoy her work when you get to it.

      Like

  6. Sounds too bleak for me but thank you for sharing and certainly of interest to many, I’m sure!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope so! I had the most fun gathering the nautical props from neighbours 😉

      Like

      1. Thank you! I put out a call for flags, maps, atlases, and nautical memorabilia, and was impressed with what people had lying around. It helps that we live by a canal; one of the people who lives on a boat year-round lent me the “fender” (the rope weight with chains).

        Like

  7. Hmm, a possibility, but more for some dim distant future than to drop what I’m currently enjoying and intending to read. I do enjoy the occasional timeshift novel, especially when I feel engaged with the participants and how they’re shown to engage with each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do, too. It was an interesting choice, using the perspectives (but not the voices) of troubled children.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: