Friday, October 07, 2022

Jess Kidd's The Night Ship takes an innovative approach to a 17th-century maritime disaster

The 1629 maritime disaster of the Dutch East India flagship Batavia has been fictionalized before, as in Arabella Edge’s The Company (2001), but Kidd’s approach is especially innovative. She imagines the voyage and terrible aftermath from the viewpoint of nine-year-old Mayken, who leaves the Netherlands with her nursemaid to join her father across the globe.

A parallel story depicts Gil, also nine, who comes to stay with his cantankerous fisherman grandfather on Beacon Island off Australia’s west coast, the site of the Batavia shipwreck, in 1989. Both children are inquisitive, motherless misfits with active imaginations. While Mayken explores the lower decks in male disguise, worried about a reported monster, Gil’s presence inflames an ongoing feud with another family.

Tension runs high in both tales, which are closely interwoven. There are whimsical, even funny moments, but physical and psychological horrors flourish in this well-researched, spellbindingly dark and folklore-infused novel as the plot advances. As one character opines, “The greatest shame of humankind is the failure of the strong to protect the weak.” Recommended especially to Alma Katsu’s fans.

The Night Ship is published this month by Atria/Simon & Schuster, and I reviewed it for Booklist's Sept. 1 issue.  

Some other notes:  When this book arrived as an assignment, I was a little nervous, since the historical event it's based around is... pretty horrific.  The wreck of the Batavia is terrible enough, but things get worse from there (see more at Wikipedia, but be alert to potential spoilers).  But I am glad I read the book, since the approach the author took was very creative, and each of the timelines pulls equal weight.  Even though the protagonists are children, the book isn't aimed at that age group.  There are hints at background events in the story that only adult readers are likely to catch and understand. And if you're looking for a creepy, atmospheric read for the spooky season, this will fit.  

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