The Ship by Antonia Honeywell
Welcome to London, but not as you know it. Oxford Street burned for three weeks; Regent’s Park has been bombed; the British Museum is occupied by those with nowhere else to go.
Lalla has grown up sheltered from the chaos, but now she’s sixteen, her father decides it’s time to use their escape route – a ship big enough to save five hundred people. 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?
Regular readers of The Eloquent Page are well aware of my almost un-heathy addiction to apocalyptic fiction. I’ll begin by reaffirming that admission, I think about the end of the world more than is probably entirely normal. I know this might sound terribly morbid, but let me assure you that it really is not. I don’t wish anyone dead. I certainly don’t want to be around to see it. I’m just insanely curious about what form our end will take, and what will come afterwards. With that in mind, it will not be a surprise when I tell you I am always on the lookout for the next apocalyptic fiction classic.
This story picks up right at the point where the situation in London has reached crisis point. The government, and society in general, have failed. Every policy or decision that has been made has only made the situation worse, and the only response from the existing authorities is a quick, violent death. I like the way the writing depicts the nature of society’s collapse. Everything is left rather indistinct. There are a few oblique hints but nothing overly explicit. It makes sense as you read on. The apocalypse in this novel is only a precursor to the events that transpire on the ship.
Lalla has been exceptionally lucky while growing up. Her mother and father have gone to great lengths keep her shielded from the worst of what is happening in the outside world. Society has slowly crumbled away, but Lalla has remained largely removed from it all. Her first real experience of the apocalypse is when she gets to leave her home and travel to the ship
Lalla’s father, Michael, is the visionary behind the Ship and its existence. The people who he has selected to live on board have become his extended surrogate family and he has become their saviour. The is a suitably dark undercurrent in this strand of the narrative. You get the distinct impression that for those who have been fortunate to be on-board, their unwavering devotion could very easily twist into something far more sinister and fanatical. It is certainly one of the many things that troubles Lalla as she settles in.
On board the huge, seemingly endless, vessel, Lalla is not entirely alone. She forms a strong bond with another teen called Tom Mandel. Is it possible that he has the same forward thinking outlook as Lalla? Honeywell handles their burgeoning relationship with a delicate touch. No longer children, but not quite grown-ups, there is a wonderful sense of trepidation as they learn about one another. In many respects, this mirrors Lalla’s overall journey. She is in a situation where naivety or innocence are no longer an option. She has to confront her adulthood, and the responsibilities it brings, head on.
This novel manages that difficult task of being many things all at once. Lalla’s journey of self-realisation, of traversing that difficult period between the end of her childhood and the beginning of her adult life, is utterly compelling to witness. On top of that, you have a larger exploration of how different people deal with the concept of loss and their own mortality. There is a stark sense of inevitability that permeates every paragraph of this story. Have the people on the ship actually found that most elusive of things, a lucky escape, or are the merely swapping one form of slow death for another?
It would be a hard soul who read The Ship and wasn’t moved to a certain amount of introspection. I certainly found myself questioning where I would stand. Could I walk away from the world and live in an artificially constructed state of happiness, an ever present now where the past and the future held little or no meaning? Or would I be compelled to seek answers, to discover what was going to happen next and where my place would be in the new version of the world? Ultimately, at its core, I suppose that is the question that The Ship is attempting to answer. It is all about making what could be potentially your final decision. You are presented with evidence, and you get to make your choice. Do you give into a creeping sadness of a slowly impending death, or do you hold onto a sense of hope (however slim that sense of hope may be?). I love when fiction forces you to think about stuff like that.
If you enjoyed Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (I certainly did), then I’m sure The Ship will also become a firm favourite. Tonally, they have a similar quality. Actually it has just occurred to me, I wonder if Tom’s surname is a nice reverential nod to the author of that very book? I rather hope it is.
Thought provoking fiction like this deserves as wide an audience as possible. Honeywell’s writing does such a wonderful job of capturing the emotive depth and detail in Lalla’s journey. There are a handful of revelatory moments that, when they arrive, are so damned striking they feel almost like a punch in the gut. The Ship is first rate psychological horror. This is a vision of the apocalypse that goes for the throat, while pulling on the heartstrings in the same moment. A quick internet search reveals that this is Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel. Wow, I am suitably impressed. I can’t wait to discover what she has in store for us next.
The Ship is published by W&N and is available now. Highly recommended.