“As is the way with souls confined, tempers fray and flare, ill-spoken words fester, coincidences become intrigues. Minds seethe with resentment and revenge like the worms in the water barrels. As the ship spoils, so does the air between the people.“
Jess Kidd ~ The Night Ship
1629: A newly orphaned young girl named Mayken is bound for the Dutch East Indies on the Batavia, one of the greatest ships of the Dutch Golden Age. Curious and mischievous, Mayken spends the long journey going on misadventures above and below the deck, searching for a mythical monster. But the true monsters might be closer than she thinks.
1989: A lonely boy named Gil is sent to live off the coast of Western Australia among the seasonal fishing community where his late mother once resided. There, on the tiny reef-shrouded island, he discovers the story of an infamous shipwreck…
Although the tragic story of the Batavia is a true one, there remain many unanswered questions about the horrific massacre that took place.
In The Night Ship, Jess Kidd brings the stories of those on board to life. We meet Mayken and her nurse Imke, travelling to be with the girl’s father. Through Mayken’s young eyes, we see the events of 1629 unfold.
The choice to tell the story this way is brilliant, as Mayken’s innocence means that she does not always correctly interpret the rationale behind actions, or the complexities of hierarchy and class. Her mischievous nature sees her scampering about the ship, with no thought to social barriers, making friends with many of the crew members, and – at least to start – this protects her. Knowing she was not actually on the real ship, we are hopeful for her survival, so her fate is all the more horrific, because we have experienced the voyage and mutiny with her, and she is just a little girl.
The modern part of the story, set on an island near the sinking of the Batavia, is slightly less gripping, moving at a slower pace. Whilst interesting in its own right, the link with Mayken’s tale at first feels unclear, except for the location and a loose hint of a ghost haunting the woods. The two children are the same age, have both lost their mothers and been sent away, but Gil is a much sadder, complex character. His relationships with his grandfather and tortoise are well crafted, whilst the behaviour of the others on the island is sickening. His reaction to their actions is understandable, but at times it’s hard to believe he is just nine years old. As we see the islanders reaction to an outsider, we see that despite a few centuries having passed, humans are still no better and will still turn against each other for personal gain.
Although the ending is a little underwhelming, at its heart, this book is beautifully written and crafted, perfectly balancing fact and fiction. Through brutal, raw storytelling, Kidd has written an outstanding book that is both sympathetic and condemning of the events that occurred.
Thanks to Canongate Books for my proof copy. Opinions my own.