Book Review: The Ship

Thursday 22 January 2015 by

The Ship, Orion, Antonia Honeywell, Book, Curtis Brown Book GroupThe Ship by Antonia Honeywell

Published by Orion

Publishes 19th February 2015

Welcome to London

But not as you know it

Oxford Street burned for three weeks. The British Museum is occupied by ragtag survivors. The Regent’s Park camps have been bombed. The Nazareth Act has come into force. If you can’t produce your identity card, you don’t exist.

Lalla, sixteen, has grown up sheltered from the new reality by her visionary father, Michael Paul. But now the chaos has reached their doorstep. Michael has promised to save them. His escape route is a ship big enough to save five hundred people. But only the worthy will be chosen.

Once on board, as day follows identical day, Lalla’s unease grows. Where are they going? What does her father really want?

What is the price of salvation?

~*~

The first official read from the Curtis Brown Book Group is from debutante Antonia Honeywell, and is a dystopian novel of a ruined London. Having been recently blown away by Station Eleven, I have a renewed taste for dystopians (Margaret Atwood is a favourite author after all), and this is the perfect start to the Book Group.

The Ship follows Lalla as her father attempts to rescue her from the wreckage of London. He arranges for a ship, filled with provisions and 500 carefully chosen people, to take her away from the bombings, shootings, disease, starvation and general miasma of horror. But all is not as it seems on this dream ship – where are they going? Why were these people chosen? What is Michael’s big plan?

Instantly, there is something sinister about this book (and the word sinister is one I would use over and over again to describe the plot). Honeywell does an expert job at keeping you in the dark as much as Lalla, meaning you spend your time trying to decipher the clues as much as she does. There is an eeriness that hangs over everything – and the ship that seems to be larger than life, and filled with luxury (the Titanic, anyone!?)

If I were to attempt to describe this book to anyone, I would argue that it is a blend of Station Eleven, Oryx and Crake and a thriller. Michael seems to have a god-like status on the ship, only serving to drag out this ominous tension as Lalla seem to be the only one who sees through the simplistic haven that her father has created. There is the Oryx-like ruination of the world, the Station Eleven­-like collection of people, and the thriller-like mystery that overshadows it all.

Lalla is a strong protagonist; at sixteen, she is naïve enough to be believable, with a core of steel that drives the plot forward. But there are moments when you feel like shaking her as much as the rest of the characters, particularly when it comes to Tom, the love interest. She is like any other self-absorbed teenager, and it is only when she starts to look externally that you get a real sense of the novel. Honeywell bravely battles a coming-of-age story in to a dystopian fiction; the world she creates is one that can serve as a warning to us, but is comfortably distant enough to keep the read entertaining rather than preaching.

Of all the characters, though, I felt that Michael fell a little short. He switches between benevolent god to sinister puppeteer, with very little apparent motive. Even with the Grand Reveal at the end, I don’t feel that the why is truly explained. I can’t say much more than that, because there are some fairly pivotal plot points that I wouldn’t dare reveal if you haven’t read it. But there is something left too open-ended, with too much of a question mark to give the proper satisfaction. The whole story builds to this, and in fact the biggest pay-off is during the storm, a 100 or so pages before the end. As a character, Michael has the most to give. He is, after all, the creator behind the whole story. It is his will and vision and plan that drives the story on, with Lalla moving from observer to actor as she grows in to her own role.

As a group, we have been asked by the editor of The Ship whether or not we think Lalla is vocal enough or just over-reacting, and there are moments of both from her. I think she has to learn very suddenly to grow up and accept that the world she is in is not as nice as her parents have made it for her, but she also needs to be more certain of herself – something doesn’t feel right and yet she never really tries to explore it until the end. She is a curious blend of teen and adult; perhaps the perfect embodiment of a sixteen-year-old!

But for me, I think that these moments are indicative of a first novel. It is hard to comment on an author’s form when this is their first outing, and for Honeywell she does a brilliant job. Dystopias are daunting and hard to manage, and she does it with aplomb. There is palpable drive behind this story, it is beautifully paced, trickling you along to the conclusion. There is always more to explore (Roger, for example), but you never feel like this was cut and you’re missing out, it was simply not needed. Honeywell’s writing is clean and crisp, with a strong voice and great sense of emotion and atmosphere. The characters feel dramatic and authentic, without overwhelming their place in the story. It’s nicely done.

I am a sucker for imagery, and the imagery in The Ship is, at times, breathtaking; the fourth floor, the apple, the red shoes. These are key moments for Lalla, and they are sparkling gems of writing. Honeywell is brilliant at plucking out the tiny thing that you must notice, and showing it to you without you even realising that you are being instructed. Her showing-and-not-telling is exquisite. This is a writer still learning and still experimenting, but with a talent that flourishes in her descriptions.

It was inevitable I was going to enjoy this book; dystopian novels are my Achilles heel. Lalla is a brilliant lead, and Michael is a brilliant antagonist. I want to explore Lalla’s world with her, and remain there for a while, eating apples. This is a nugget of delight from an impressive first-time author.

You can read a post from Antonia Honeywell here, explaining how The Ship came to be.

Copy courtesy of Curtis Brown Book Group

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