27 July 2022

Review: The Night Ship by Jess Kidd

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd book cover

* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House Australia *

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd is an historical fiction novel about the Batavia. Nine year old girl Mayken is aboard the flagship Batavia, built by the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam in 1628. The ship is on her maiden voyage to Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies in what we now call Jakarta, Indonesia.

The Batavia was an impressive ship carrying three hundred passengers and in a 10 year project starting in 1985, a full size replica of the ship was built using the same materials and methods employed in the early 17th century. Similar to the Titanic, it's heartbreaking to know that the Batavia sunk on her first voyage.

Steward Jan Pelgrom (a character based on a real person on the voyage) tells our protagonist Mayken more about the ship and about what happens in the belly of the ship or 'The Below World':
"First of all there's the gun deck. Where sailors bicker and curse, eat and sleep and the ship's barber lops off legs. Where the cook's galley gets hotter than Hell and the rats the cats can't catch grow big enough to steal babies. The orlop deck below that is for cows and soldiers. And below that, there's the hold." Page 13
Meanwhile, in 1989 we meet nine year old Gil, sent to stay with his Grandfather on a remote fishing village off the coast of Western Australia. Gil is struggling to fit in and understand his place in the world, while surrounded by fishermen and scientists searching for remains of the Batavia wreckage and fragments from the survivor's settlement that followed.

The island is remote and hostile and Gil is haunted by stories of a ghost girl.
"Gil has a watched sort of feeling. He reassures himself that his room is too small for any quantity of ghosts, unless they can overlap. But then the dead can't harm you; it's the living you should fear. The ghosts ought to make themselves useful and go out and haunt the veranda in case Roper returns." Page 93
I love Gil's sense of humour and applaud the writing style. Mayken is curious and friendly and makes many friends on the voyage. She likes to explore the ship when she can and here she is asking her favourite old sailor (Holdfast) if he has any stories:
"The old sailor obliges. He tells the sleepy child stories of cursed ports and blood-red roses, of the gunner's beautiful daughter, of love knots and promises. His words are snatched up and hauled away by the wind, which picks up as the ship ploughs on through the night." Page 157
While brief, this particular relationship between Mayken and Holdfast was incredibly touching and I also enjoyed the interactions between Mayken and the kitchen boy. However the journey continues on for months and the crew and passengers become restless as their health begins to suffer without fresh food.
"As is the way with souls confined, tempers fray and flare, ill-spoken words fester, coincidences become intrigues. Minds seethe with resentment and revenge like the worms in the water barrels.
As the ship spoils, so does the air between the people." Page 163
At one point, Mayken becomes justifiably emotional and the writer's expertise in making the reader feel every part of her anguish was clear on the page:
"She doesn't want to be calm. She wants to tear the ship apart, rivet by rivet, bolt by bolt, drag the caulking out with her teeth, lever up the boards with her fingernails. She wants to swing off the shrouds screaming and rend the main sail. Instead, she sleeps." Page 196
If you know your history - and even if you don't - you soon discover that the Batavia is going to come to grief off the coast of Australia and I REALLY didn't want to read about what happened afterwards. Approximately 40 people drowned in the wreck, but the rest were able to swim, float or paddle ashore. Worried a rescue wouldn't arrive in time, a savage fight over rations and scrabble for power amongst the survivors led to the cold blooded murder of many men, women and children in a series of atrocities. This made for hard reading, but these scenes were interspersed with some lighter moments with Gil which carried me through.

Gil isn't shipwrecked but he's facing his own hardship as he comes of age with a Grandfather who seems emotionally unavailable but trying to do his best. In fact it reminded me of Sam and Vic's relationship in Honeybee by Craig Silvey.

I loved Gil's thoughts on karma:
"Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people; that is the law of karma. Good deeds get rewarded and bad acts get punished. Help someone out, you'll win the lottery. Steal from a shop, a bird will shit on your head. Sometimes you'll get bad karma for something you don't do, like not helping an old lady who falls down in the road. In a few days, a month, or a year, a hole will appear in your pocket and your wallet will fall through it. That's karma." Page 259
Love it! Gil is so endearing and his thoughts and observations often made me smile. I especially loved the scenes featuring his pet tortoise and the link that connected Gil to Mayken was a nice touch.

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd reminded me of Devotion by Hannah Kent and The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews, so if you enjoyed either of those historical fiction novels, you'll enjoy this one too. The writing for both narratives and time periods in The Night Ship was seamless and moving. In the past I reviewed The Hoarder and Things in Jars by Jess Kidd, but didn't quite reach the lofty heights of a five star review. I think this time she has earned that additional star. Highly recommended!

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. I saw Theresa was reading this too last week. I am very drawn to the cover and the fact it's set in WA is immediately of interest to me. Your 5🌟 review means I must read it now.

    1. That's brilliant Claire, I'm so glad Theresa and I convinced you to give this one a chance 😃 Hope you enjoy!

    2. I'm glad we convinced you Claire. I hope you love it!

  2. I would need to be in the right mood for this!

    1. I hear you, but please be assured this isn't a harrowing or gruelling story. I hope you give it a chance one day.

  3. Oooh high praise indeed!! I am currently reading and thoroughly enjoying this 👍

    1. So glad to hear you're enjoying this at the moment too Tien, I'll keep an eye out for your rating and review when you finish.

  4. Terrific review Tracey, your enthusiasm for this one really shines through. I'm still reading it and this is my first Jess Kidd novel, but I do like her style. Pretty sure Things in Jars is on my TBR based on your review of it.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Theresa and glad you enjoyed my review 😊 I think this is the perfect place to start your Jess Kidd reading, so hope you continue enjoying it.

  5. I have long been fascinated by the story of the Batavia! Going to need to read this one!

    Thanks for sharing this with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

    1. Thanks Marg, this will definitely give you a different perspective on the shipwreck of Batavia. This one has stayed with me so hope you enjoy it!


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