“Come.” John Pinten turns and puts his palm against the hull. “Do as I do.”
Mayken crawls forward and puts her palm next to his, flat against the planks. She sees how much smaller and cleaner her hand is. Too clean for a cabin boy. But John Pinten doesn’t seem to notice.
“She’s all that lies between us and the deep dark fathoms of the sea.” John Pinten’s voice grows quiet, grave. “Can you feel the ocean pulling at the nail heads, pressing against the planks, prizing the caulking? The water wants in.”
Old superstitions are rife now. The sailors lead the way. Words must be chanted over knots. Messmates must be served in a particular order. A change of wind direction must be greeted. Portents are looked for and translated. The cut of the wake noted. The shape of clouds debated…A lamp taken down into the hold will now burn green. Monstrous births plague the onboard animals. Their issue is hastily thrown overboard to prevent alarm. Eyeless lambs. Mouthless piglets. A litter of rabbits joined together, a mass of heads and limbs. The gardener harvests fork-tailed carrots from his boxed plot outside the hen coop.
“It’s the way of long journeys,” says Creesje. “They alter what people think and see.”
1628 – Mayken van der Heuvel heads out on a long, exciting, but very dangerous adventure. She is setting sail on the grandest ship of the era, the Batavia, to a place by the same name, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Well, in 1628, anyway. Today, we know it as Jakarta, Indonesia. Her journey is not being undertaken by choice, though. Mayken’s mother died giving birth to a child not her husband’s. The girl is being sent to her father, accompanied by a nursemaid, the kindly, but very superstitious, Imke. Mayken is nine years old.
There are many layers to this child: undergarments, middle garments, and top garments. Mayken is made of pale skin and small white teeth and fine fair hair and linen and lace and wool and leather. There are treasures sewn into the seams of her clothing, small and valuable, like her.
Mayken has a father she’s never met. Her father is a merchant who lives in a distant land where the midday sun is fierce enough to melt a Dutch child.
We follow Mayken’s adventures on this months-long journey across the world. But we know from the beginning that the ship will not complete its trip.
1989 – A nine-year-old boy has just endured a journey of his own.
Gil is made of pale skin and red hair and thrifted clothes. His shoes, worn down on the outsides, lend an awkward camber to his walk. Old ladies like him, they think he’s old-fashioned. Truck drivers like him because he takes an interest in their rigs. Everyone else finds him weird.
He never knew his father, and Mom kept them on the move all of his brief life, until her death. Gil has been sent to live with his crusty fisherman grandfather, Joss. To the place off the west coast of Australia where the off-course Batavia met its inglorious end. Researchers have been retrieving bits of the ship and its contents. The island is said to be haunted by the spirit of a young girl, Little May.
Jess Kidd – image from The Bookseller – by Cordula Tremi
Mayken and Gil’s stories are told in alternating chapters. The duration of their experiences, however, is not the same. Mayken’s time on the Batavia is considerably longer than Gil’s, on what is now Beacon Island. Kidd handles this disparity well, so that difference is not obvious.
Mayken is a particularly curious and adventurous little girl, exploring and experiencing the ship with a range of partners, despite her caretakers preferring for her to be a demure, proper young lady. She has a talent for gaining trust and affection from those around her, both children and adults. It comes in handy. Being a child, she carries some odd notions with her, and is susceptible to things that challenge credulity. She is convinced that there is a mythical beast in the deep hold of the ship. (The eel creature was an ancient monster and foe of all humankind. Its name was Bullebak.) Is the evidence she spies of its existence sharp perception or childish imagination? Being the child of a wealthy household, she gains a lot more latitude from those in charge than a street urchin might, which allows her to get away with slipping away from the “Above World” of the deck and passengers to the “Below World” where the crew lives and works.
The Batavia replica was constructed between 1985 and 1995 at the Bataviawerf (Batavia shipyard) in Lelystad, The Netherlands. Image: Malis via Wiki Commons – image and text from Sea Museum
Gil is a lonely boy, who has seen little stability in his life, and more than his share of horror. Grandpa Joss is less than welcoming, (Gil’s mother had not exactly been a model daughter.) wants him to become a fisherman like him, an occupation to which Gil is ill-suited and strongly opposed. He finds a friend or two. Silvia, the young wife of an older fisherman (and hated rival to his grandfather) takes him under her wing. Dutch, an older deckhand, takes an interest in him as well. In addition, Gil acquires a companion of a different sort, Enkidu, a tortoise named for a bff from ancient literature.
There are challenges to survival for both Mayken and Gil, not just their initial de-parenting trauma and grief. In fact there is enough mirroring of their experiences for a carnival fun house. Both are, effectively, orphaned only children, with dead mothers and absent fathers, sent to live with relations after the death of their mothers. Both explore strange new places, with the assistance of those more familiar. Both have a belief in the reality of supposedly mythical beings, finding it easier to seek explanations for the world in cultural fantasies than in the awfulness of the humans around them. (The shadow-monster darkens and becomes solid. It is terrible. Slime slicks and drips over ancient barnacled scales. Eyes, luminous and bulging. Gills rattling venomously. A great, festering eel-king.) It is called a Bunyip.
Both are outsiders, in peril from people in their community. There is plenty more. But both come into possession of a stone with a hole in it, that is supposed to have special properties, a witch-stone, or hag-stone. The very same one. It is a link across three hundred sixty years, connecting their parallel experiences. As children, neither has control over much of anything, so they are both at the mercy of the adults around them, not all of whom are benign. With limited immediate familial resources, they are trying to create a kind of family for themselves.
This engraving depicts three scenes associated with the loss of the Dutch ship Batavia in 1629. Top: Batavia approaches the Houtman Abrolhos Islands off Western Australia at night. Lower right: the vessel aground on a reef with the crew in boats attempting to refloat it. Lower left: the state of the Batavia the next day, and the passengers and crew abandoning the ship. ANMM Collection 00004993
One of the wonderful things about this novel is the view we get of a lengthy ocean voyage in the 17th century.
The physical research helped. “Bumping my head about 400 times as I walked around the ‘Batavia’ replica, it really helped to get a physical sense of the life. The same with the island, walking around and seeing the barrenness and feeling the elements.” – from The Bookseller interview
The demise of the ship is terrifying, but not so much as the demise of civilization that follows for the survivors. Existential threats abound in 1989 as well, for Gil and others.
There are many compelling secondary characters. Several on the ship stand out, a soldier, John Pinten, the ship’s doctor, Aris Jansz, Holdfast, a denizen of the rigging, who snatches Mayken up. Imke the nursemaid is a fun addition, and Creesje, who looks to help Mayken going forward, is a warm, nurturing presence. Those surrounding Gil are likewise interesting. Gil’s colorful grandfather, Joss, goes through some changes. Dutch is a warm force, as is a researcher, on the island looking into the wreck.
While Mayken and Gil are entirely fictional, Kidd has populated her story with many of the actual people who were on the Batavia. The presence of those historical personages gives the events that take place in the novel even greater heft. The kids are very nicely drawn, and will engage your interest and sympathy.
Wallabi Island (left), Beacon Island (centre) and Morning Reef (right). Image: Hesperian with NASA satellite photos via Wiki Commons. – image and text from Sea Museum
Tension ratchets up for both Mayken and Gil. While we know the fate of the Batavia, we do not know the fate of all those she carried.
Unlike in her previous book, Things in Jars, which dealt very considerably with things fantastical, the unreality of the creatures May and Gil perceive is much more subtle. The creatures both claim to be real may or may not be. But both creatures serve admirably as metaphors for the awfulness of humanity.
While this may not be the best possible choice for reading on a ship-based vacation, it is a moving and fascinating read for landlubbers. Kidd writes with the touch of the poet, adorning her compelling, moving story with sparkling descriptive finery, while offering us a child’s-eye view of the most remarkable ship of its time, and telling a tale of doom. Both Gil’s and Mayken’s stories are strong enough masts to have sailed alone, but together they make a weatherly craft and catch a strong wind, easily speeding past potential story-telling shoals.
“How do you describe dread, Gil? That’s what the bunyip is: an attempt to give fear a shape.”
Gil thinks on this.
“Everyone’s fear looks different,” Birgit continues. “So everyone’s creature looks different. But they all eat crayfish, women, and children. That seems to be universal.”
“They’re just warnings for kids. Not to play near water or talk to strangers.”
Review posted – December 16, 2022
Publication date – October 18, 2022
I received an ARE of The Night Ship from Atria in return for a fair review, and a small, ancient piece of (maybe) bone, recently dug up in our back yard. Thanks, folks.
This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
—–The Bookseller – Jess Kidd discusses her latest novel, new perspectives and maritime disasters by Alice O’Keefe
—–BNBook Club Jess Kidd discusses SCATTERED SHOWERS with Miwa Messer and Shannon DeVito – video – 41:28 – forget the title – they talk about The Night Ship
My review of an earlier book by the author
—–Things in Jars
Items of Interest
—–Wiki on The Batavia
—–Sea Museum – The Batavia
—–Wiki on Beacon Island
—–The Wayback Machine – Batavia’s Graveyard
—–Western Australian Museum – Batavia’s History
—–Dutch Folklore Wikia – Bullebak
—–American Museum of Natural History – The Bunyip
—–Wiki on Bunyip