Reviews of The Night Ship
Financial Times: 30 July, Catherine Taylor
The Night Ship by Jess Kidd — hell and high water
Towards dawn on June 4 1629, the Dutch trading vessel the Batavia, en route to the Dutch East Indies, was wrecked on a coral reef some 70km off the coast of Western Australia. The Batavia had set out on its long maiden voyage almost eight months previously from the port of Texel in the Netherlands. The brand new flagship of the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC’s) seven-strong fleet, its destination was its namesake Batavia, capital of the then Dutch colony — now modern-day Jakarta — a major centre for the booming spice trade. As well as the ship’s crew, the Batavia carried around 100 soldiers and a number of civilian passengers, mostly relatives and servants of VOC employees.
When the ship’s commander, Francisco Pelsaert — who with some 40 other men had departed by longboat to seek help from the mainland shortly after the Batavia ran aground — was able to return with reinforcements in September, he was shocked by what he found. Of the 200 or so shipwreck survivors, just over half —men, women and children — had been massacred, all under the orders of Palseart’s deputy Jeronimus Cornelisz, whose temporary power grab in his superior’s absence had unleashed a torrent of barbarism.
Drawing on Palseart’s own testimony, as well as that of the predikant (pastor) whose life was spared even as his family was slaughtered, Kidd details the Batavia’s journey up to and including its terrible outcome.
Mixing both historical and fictitious characters — with a nine-year-old Dutch girl, the high-born, vivacious Mayken, who is going to join her wealthy merchant father in Batavia after her mother’s death, as the (invented) principal player — Kidd builds an immersive visual and olfactory world of the 17th-century ship. From the penned cattle and soldiers sweltering together in the fetid darkness of the gun deck to the fine ladies dining on those same cattle above them in the Great Cabin: all the fortitude, desperation and cravenness of its human cargo is laid bare. “The Batavia is the whole world and the whole world is always moving.”
This in itself would be enough for one book, but Kidd, who since her first novel Himself (2016) has displayed a voracious talent for storytelling, has devised a parallel narrative that is no less absorbing.
Set more than 350 years later, in 1989, this modern take focuses on another child,Gil, an introverted nine-year-old boy, whose restless, troubled mother has recently died in squalid circumstances. Gil, who has never known his father, is reluctantly conveyed to Batavia’s Graveyard, now called Beacon Island, to live in a rundown asbestos shack with his only relative — his grandfather Joss, a seasonal crayfisher.
Joss is a taciturn man of repressed emotion: the thawing of this monolith — and his developing relationship with Gil — is one of the small joys of the book. Yet menace stalks Gil as it does Mayken: long-held, slow-burning enmities among thes mall community of cray fishers flagrantly erupt, with the boy as unwitting catalyst.
Kidd’s meticulous depiction of this hardworking, hard-drinking group has something of the muscularity of Tim Winton, the foremost writer of Australian white working-class culture. She adds another element, too, that of the supernatural which becomes less powerful and significant as the book proceeds
—there is unnecessary overemphasis of the monstrosity of humans being far worse than anything conjured from imagination.
Both Mayken and Gil are morbidly obsessed with baleful water creatures fromDutch and Aboriginal folklore, which the children, in their separate timescales, deem responsible for the psychological and physical horrors they experience. For Mayken, it is the Bullebak, a giant, eel-like being that she insists is lurking in theBatavia’s hold; for Gil it is the Bunyip, a seal-dog that hangs around swamps and water holes, awaiting its victims.
Beacon Island itself is permeated with the myths surrounding the Batavia (the wreck was discovered underwater in 1963 and since 2014 the island has been preserved as a wilderness) and in Kidd’s version “Little May”, the child ghost reputed to haunt it. Kidd’s exuberant but never overblown prose shifts easily between two very different periods, the tall hats and lace collars of the Dutch harmoniously giving way to the shorts and singlets of the Beacon islanders. She is careful, too, not to make Mayken and Gil too similar, though both disrupt gender norms (Mayken disguises herself as a cabin boy, to move between areas of the ship;Gil’s greatest solace is to dress in his late grandmother’s clothes).
Ultimately, Mayken’s mounting losses are irreparable, as the sparse, dramatic pages describing the tragic human cost of the Batavia chillingly attest. This marvellous, spirited novel concludes with the hope that Gil will be given the chance of deliverance.