The Night Ship by Jess Kidd is a strange compelling story about two orphaned children separated, but connected, by 361 years. Each thinks they see ghosts, learns legends and fights monsters. Both want to be scared, to seek out the unknown. In 1628, nine-year old Mayken is aboard the magnificent Batavia, one of a fleet of ships heading from Holland to Batavia in Dutch East India (now Indonesia). She travels with her nursemaid Imke. Mayken’s mother has died of ‘the bloody flux’ and she travels to live with her father, a senior executive in the Dutch East India Company. Mayken has never met him but knows he grows red and white roses at his marble mansion, has chestnut stallions and dapple mares.
In 1989 after the death of his mother, nine-year old Gil goes to live with his grandfather who is a fisherman on the remote Beacon Island off the coast of Australia. It’s a stark place. Gil, who has only the vaguest childhood memories of both his grandfather Joss and of Beacon Island, has never known his father.
Both children explore their new surroundings, making adventures in their limited worlds. The warning ‘don’t go there’ or ‘don’t do that’ becomes an invitation to do exactly that. Both are explorers, brave in the face of the unknown, outsiders living in worlds limited in space bounded by the sea. When brutality strikes, how can they escape. Both are haunted by legend and scary stories, both make unlikely allies and enemies. Mayken discards her rich dress and wears breeches to venture below decks and, as ship’s boy Obbe, assumes a new identity. There she makes friends and enemies amongst the soldiers and sailors; these connections are vital later in the story. Gil knows he cannot leave the island without his grandfather’s permission. He finds a friend in his tortoise Enkidu and dresses up in clothes from Granny Ada’s wardrobe. When he finds a boat, inspired by stories about a shipwreck many years ago and the finds by an archaeological team digging on the island, he dreams of escape.
I loved the fond relationship between Mayken and Imke, particularly the recurring question about how Imke lost her fingertips as Mayken’s suggestions get more bizarre and gruesome. This is a welcome distraction from the bizarre and gruesome things that begin to happen aboard. Is someone making mischief, is it simply sailor’s superstitions or is there a monster aboard? Gil struggles to connect with his silent, brusque grandfather, and becomes the target of the island’s bullies. Each storyline is told only from the child’s viewpoint. Are Mayken and Gil to be trusted as reliable witnesses or has the real world become lost in their imaginations.
The Night Ship is based on the real seventeenth-century story of the voyage, shipwreck and mutiny aboard the treasure-laden ship Batavia. The fictional accounts of Mayken’s life aboard ship and then on the island they call Batavia’s Graveyard and Gil’s life on Beacon Island, the same place, explore community within and the social breakdown of small groups of people.
Slowly, slowly, this story grew on me. First, it seemed simply strange. But then the echoes in the lives of the two children begin to build and I wanted to know their endings. Beautifully-written and born from a wild imagination. This is the third book by Jess Kidd that I’ve read, each so different and impossible to predict. Sometimes a difficult read, this is also a hopeful, magical story with ultimately a positive message about the resilience of human love and kindness in the face of violence, evil and exploitation.
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Read my reviews of two other novels by Jess Kidd:-
If you like this, try:-
‘Dangerous Women’ by Hope Adams
‘The Ship’ by Antonia Honeywell
‘Devotion’ by Hannah Kent
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
#BookReview THE NIGHT SHIP by @JessKiddHerself https://wp.me/p2ZHJe-5Tw via @SandraDanby