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The Night Ship

Review

The Night Ship

Jess Kidd, the award-winning author of THINGS IN JARS, makes a triumphant return with THE NIGHT SHIP, a dual-timeline work of historical fiction. The book centers on the real-life tragedy of the Batavia shipwreck of 1629 and draws taut, emotionally resonant connections to its repercussions today through the perspectives of two extraordinary children.

In 1628, the Batavia set off from Holland to Batavia as part of a fleet of Dutch East India Company ships. The grand voyage, captained by merchant Francisco Pelsaert and skipper Ariaen Jacobsz, departed with over 300 men, women and children, scores of jewels and countless rats on board. In Kidd’s telling, the boarders included whip-smart and imaginative Mayken, a nine-year-old “made of pale skin and small white teeth and fine fair hair and linen and lace and wool and leather.” Accompanied by her nursemaid, Imke, Mayken is bound for Batavia to meet her father, a wealthy merchant who is to become her sole guardian after her mother's untimely death.

"In Kidd’s gentle but capable hands, the line between magic and reality blurs, words are imbued with power, and even the most mundane fear (to an adult) becomes insidious and otherworldly."

Some 300 years later, a nine-year-old boy named Gil --- “made of pale skin and red hair and thrifted clothes” --- also embarks on a voyage: to Beacon Island, formerly a fishermen’s haven but now the hotly contested home to scientists digging up the remains and wreckage of the Batavia, a dark spot on Australia’s history. Having recently lost his mother, Gil is being sent to live with his fisherman grandfather, a man so formidable that he is always referred to by his full name --- Joss Hurley --- and whose arrivals and departures often mark the ends and starts of things (“Joss Hurley left [so] the kids set out”; “then the kids had to stop because Joss Hurley returned”). When the intuitive and sensitive Gil learns that the island is home to a ghost called Little May, the revelation is both terrifying and seemingly inevitable.

Alternating storylines across centuries and oceans, Kidd weaves the stories of these two remarkable children. Each is cast into unknown waters by devastating tragedy, each is naive and malleable enough to see the magic of their journeys, and each is forced to reckon with the failings and flaws of their elders to chart a path forward for themselves.

While Mayken takes to life on the ship eagerly and easily, her elderly nursemaid is not so lucky. Imke initially delights in telling the fortunes of her shipmates but soon takes ill with seasickness, fever and boils. With her childish grasp of the situation, Mayken decides that the ship has yet another boarder: an eel-like monster known as Bullebak (literally, “Big Bully”). Convincing wily and devious steward Jan Pelgrom to help her plumb the ship’s depths, she begins a second life as Obbe the cabin boy, investigating its darkest corners to hunt the monster that is making Imke sick.

Meanwhile, Gil starts to adapt to Beacon Island and its tightly drawn lines between fishermen and scientists, adults and children, realists and believers. While he quickly befriends Silvia Zanetti, the young wife of the island’s most respected fisherman, their relationship is put at odds with the island’s hatred of his grandfather, rumored to have taken the Zanettis’ property after killing their patriarch. It is only when Gil finds an old picture book that tells the story of the evil Bunyip monster that he starts to appreciate the magic of the island and craft serious bonds with the people around him.

The parallels between Mayken’s Bullebak and Gil’s Bunyip are easy to draw, but they are no less strong or impactful for it. In a world full of monsters real and imagined, Kidd’s respect for her young protagonists and their viewpoints adds gravity to their speculations and makes THE NIGHT SHIP unputdownable.

In Kidd’s gentle but capable hands, the line between magic and reality blurs, words are imbued with power, and even the most mundane fear (to an adult) becomes insidious and otherworldly. Given the grave reality of Beacon Island’s famous shipwreck, there is no secret about the fate that awaits Mayken or the foreshadowed, painful connections her story will draw to Gil’s. Yet, through the power of Kidd’s prose and the sheer ingenuity and precociousness of her characters, the book is absolutely riveting and unguessable, with each twist and turn revealing a new level of imagination, depravity or heart.

Dexterous, balanced and fulfilling, THE NIGHT SHIP is an interconnected tale borne not only of shared circumstances or history, but of something much deeper: the wonder of a child and the consciousness of history to repeat, resolve and reckon.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 14, 2022

The Night Ship
by Jess Kidd

  • Publication Date: October 4, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1982180811
  • ISBN-13: 9781982180812