The Night Ship Jess Kidd Canongate, £14.99
This is my first time to read the Costa Award-winning Jess Kidd, and on the strength of The Night Ship, I’ll be going back to her previous novels, including Himself and Things in Jars.
The Night Ship has twin story lines – the first, taking place in 1629, is set aboard the Batavia, the greatest ship of the age. A young girl, Mayken, travels from the Netherlands with her nursemaid to the Dutch East Indies after the death of her mother, to live with the father she has never met.
It is a journey that will take many months, during which rigid hierarchies and established command structures will be sorely tested, by physical hardship but also the gradual honeycombing of the ship’s community by gossip, rumour and conjecture.
The ship is divided – physically and socially – but Mayken slips below the top deck, where she belongs, down into the layered bowels of the hold. Along the way she meets strange people and has fantastical encounters, while searching for the something evil she is convinced lurks there.
When the ship runs aground during a storm, and starts to sink, survivors make it as far as a scrubby patch of land, scarcely an island, and must contend with the lack of resources, including fresh water, but also the emergence of brutality and a savage lust for power from within their number.
In 1989, a young boy, Gil, is brought to the scantly-inhabited Beacon Island after the death of his mother to live with his estranged grandfather, a gruff and isolated fisherman.
Gil is troubled and uncommunicative. He is an object of suspicion locally, both for his grandfather, and because of something he has done that is whispered about. Mostly, he wants to escape, back to the mainland. Bit by bit, he learns something of the history of the island, which is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young girl.
Kidd’s writing is beautiful, a seemingly effortless layering of small details to create a vivid sense of place and geography. The slow unfurling of both Mayken and Gil as characters is wonderful, with a gradual discovery of their depths and resourcefulness as they confront the tragedies thrown their way; the way both create, from the most unpromising people, a family and community around themselves, and what happens when that tiny community is threatened.
The intersection of the stories is lightly done, each adding – but not labouring – a dimension to the other that gives it substance.
The historical sections are based on the true story of the Batavia, a ship that was indeed wrecked, and subject to horrifying mutiny. But the deep research is worn so lightly that it doesn’t over-topple this readable and memorable story.