The Night Ship

Written by Jess Kidd
Review by Edward James

The Night Ship is based on the story of the Batavia, the Dutch East India ship which was wrecked on a group of coral reefs off the coast of Western Australia in 1629. Over the last 40 years it has been the subject of several books, telling the horrifying story of internecine murder among the survivors.

Jess Kidd’s book is not principally about the shipwreck or its aftermath. The ship is not wrecked until page 255, and its history is only one of the two time streams. The Batavian time stream centres on a young girl, Mayken, who is travelling to the East Indies in the care of her nurse to join her father. The contemporary stream (1989) centres on Gil, an autistic Australian teenager who is sent to the islands where the Batavia was wrecked to join his grandfather, an elderly fisherman, after his mother’s suicide.

The blurb says the fates of the two protagonists ‘are inextricably linked’, but I don’t see this, although there are echoes between the two sad tales. One can read them just as well as separate stories, both very poignant and evocative. The beauty of the book is its sense of place, and they are bizarre places indeed, both of them squalid, uncomfortable and dangerous with some nasty inhabitants. The best passage is when Mayken escapes from her nurse to explore the dark, crowded, verminous lower decks of the great ship. Intercontinental travel was not for the faint-hearted.