Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Ships

From one dystopia to another …

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

The shipI’m on a watery/eco-thriller/dystopian reading binge at the moment, set off by picking up this novel – I couldn’t resist the colourful cover with its silhouette of a broken London landscape and a nod to the film Titanic.

It’s the near-future; the world as we know it is broken. Five hundred specially selected people escape the hell of the dystopian society left on land to live on ‘The Ship’ and the alternative nightmare of being on an everlasting cruise.

Apart from having poor sea-legs, the idea of living aboard one of those huge cruise-liners fills me with utter dread – yet people already do! However, you can get off for an excursion … this isn’t the case for The Ship‘s 500.

Fowey 024 (2) (800x417)

‘The World’ moored at Fowey, Cornwall, summer 2010. Gorgeous tiny town with a deep-water harbour that can fit this behemoth!

The story is narrated by Lalage ‘Lalla’ Paul*, who is just turning sixteen. She lives in an apartment in London with her mother and father, although he is often not there. They live entirely within the law of the military government, obeying all the rules imposed on them, but they manage to continue to live well by the standards of others. Lalla’s life is sheltered, totally unlike those of the tent-dwellers in Regent’s Park, or the gangs in the underground. Being outside in London is a dangerous place, the nearby British Museum – whose treasures are a shadow of their former glories, is their only cultural retreat. Lalla tells us about the beginning:

I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear. I was right, he said, over and over again. Wasn’t I right? Weren’t we lucky that we owed nothing to anyone? That we relied on no one beyond our little trio? That we had stores, and bottled water? Oh, the government would regret not listening to him now. … and for months we did not leave the flat.

Lalla’s father, Michael, has been planning his big escape ever since. He bought a cruise-ship, he’s been stocking it with everything needed for at least a generation’s life aboard. He’s been recruiting 500 deserving people with essential skills to take with him and they are waiting in the Holding Centre for the word from him that they’re ready to depart. But’s what’s stopping them from going today? It’s Lalla’s mother who is not sure. When Michael comes home for Lalla’s birthday celebration, he and her mother bicker:

‘How much worse do you want things to get?’
‘If you loved me, you’d stop pushing.’
‘If you loved me, we’ve have gone already.’
‘I love you Michael. I just don’t think you’re right.’
I stood in the doorway, forgetting I wasn’t meant to be listening. … ‘I want to go,’ I said. ‘If the ship is real, I want to go on it.’

They bat Lalla back and forth between them in their argument, but the decision is made when, as her mother moves in front of the window, a sniper shoots her. The ship has a doctor and surgery – it’s time to go.

Poor Lalla, her mother will not survive and she begins her life onboard in a state of profound grief, while her father has 500 disciples to lead. Will Lalla be able to overcome her depression at the death of her mother, will she be able to assimilate into life on the ship, make friends, have a useful life, and, dare I say it – help make the next generation?

The Ship is really a two-hander – an on-going battle between Lalla and Michael. All the other characters, even Tom, a young man Lalla is attracted to, are just props and aren’t really developed more than peripherally. Lalla, however, is irritating, selfish and angry, yet loveable, in the way that only teenagers can be and, although Michael is nominally benevolent and peace-loving, we somehow have to suspect his motives. With Lalla as our narrator, we gain no real sense of his long-term plans.

The biblical imagery abounds – apart from the myriad of obvious references to the book of Genesis – you can pick any prophet and see Michael in him. There are are some neat parallels in the military government enacting the Nazareth Act for instance, and could the 500 have been 5000 to feed? I may be a non-believer, but do love a good bible-story, so I enjoyed spotting all these. The questions remain: Is Lalla the new Eve? Will life ever be bearable for her on board this ark?

The Ship was a hugely enjoyable novel, a scarily prescient vision of the kind of future we could have if it all goes wrong. After the riots of a couple of years ago, somehow, I can imagine Oxford Street burning for three weeks as happens here. The combination of coming of age story with a dystopia and this fascinating setting was a winner for me. Highly recommended. (8.5/10)

* I also couldn’t help wondering, especially as I’ve recently read The Bees (review here), if Lalla was named for The Bees author Laline Paull? She does contribute a cover quote…  (P.S. Antonia told me via twitter that ‘Lalla is named for the baby at end of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and St Paul, rescued from the waves’).

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below (affiliate link):
The Shipby Antonia Honeywell, pub W&N, Feb 2015. Hardback, 320 pages.

Re-reading one of my favourite books…

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

I’ve now finished my re-read of Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, that I told you about a few days ago here.

When I finished the book the first time, so sure was I that I’d be re-reading, and hopefully re-loving, it that I bought myself a luxury numbered edition with specially commissioned foldout cover, (one of a number of editions celebrating publisher 4th Estate’s 25th anniversary).

I shut the covers this morning with a definite sense of relief. The memory of my first encounter had remained untarnished, so I loved it all over again.

The first time I read it back in the 1990s,  I remember devouring it, hungry for the story of the misfit Quoyle, who moves to the home of his ancestors after being a failure in New York state. I desperately wanted poor Quoyle to find himself and to find love in Newfoundland.

On the second time through, I took it at a more sedate pace, which enabled me to luxuriate in  the colourful characters, their hopes and fears – and everyone of them looking for love in one form or another.  As Quoyle’s best friend Partridge puts it, “Everything that counts is for love, Quoyle. It’s the engine of life.” 

Proulx’s descriptions of people are so evocative. Take Petal Bear, the object of Quoyle’s affections …

Then, at a meeting, Petal Bear. Thin, moist, hot. Winked at him. Quoyle had the big man’s yearning for small women. He stood next to her at the refreshment table. Grey eyes close together, curly hair, the colour of oak. The fluorescent light made her as pale as candle wax. Her eyelids gleamed with some dusky unguent. A metallic thread in her rose sweater. These faint sparks cast a shimmer on her like a spill of light. She smiled, the pearl-tinted lips wet with cider.

You just know she’s going to be bad news…

Petal Bear was crosshatched with longings, but not, after they were married, for Quoyle. Desire reversed to detestation like a rubber glove turned inside out.

The Shipping News - 1st UK paperbackSoon she runs off with a lover having sold their two daughters to a shady character, and is promptly killed in a car wreck.  His girls reclaimed, Quoyle is persuaded by his Aunt, Agnis Hamm to go with her to start again in Newfoundland, living in and doing up their family’s old home.

Quoyle, who had been an occasional journalist, uses his connections to get a job on the local rag The Gammy Bird. Jack Buggit, the owner, has strong opinions on what sells papers, and Quoyle, still raw from Petal’s demise, is given the task of reporting on car wrecks plus the shipping news.  Agnis meanwhile sets up a yacht upholstery shop.

It takes Quoyle a while to get used to the physical distances between people in Newfoundland. They may be spaced apart and there aren’t so many of them, but they do all know nearly everything about each other – news and gossip travel travel faster than motor cars.  Although their house is not ideal, they start to settle into the community, and they get used to the ever-changing seascape.

Blunt fogbows in the morning trip around the bay. Humps of color followed qualls. Billy Pretty babbled of lunar halos. Storms blew in and out. Sudden sleet changed to glowing violet rods, collapsed in rain. Two, three days of heat as though blown from a desert. Fibres of light crawling down the bay like luminous eels.

The Shipping News - current UK paperbackI spent my first years out of university living near and working in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, where I caught the Gorleston ferry across the river estuary to work and did a lot of watching the sea.  Although, as a young woman from South London, I found it hard to fit in socially there I did like being by the sea a lot, and the working port side of the town was always exciting.  Proulx’s town of Killick-Claw sounds somewhat similar, but  more friendly, a place I’d stay in longer than twenty two months. If I’d chanced to make friends and meet some characters, maybe I’d have been tempted to reside there longer, like Nutbeem, an Englishman who drifted through and covers the home news beat.

‘I’m going to remember this place for many things,’ said Nutbeem. ‘But most of all for the inventive violence and this tearing-off-of-clothes-in-court business. Seems to be a Newfoundland speciality…’

In her acknowledgements, Proulx credits the influence of The Ashley Book of Knots, a 1944 encyclopedia of, well, knots.  It gave her hero his name, Quoyle; the first chapter is prefaced with a definition from that book of such a coil of rope:

A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary.

Oh poor Quoyle, to start off described thus, although things do improve for him of course. Further quotations and diagrams from the book are sprinkled throughout chapter headings. They are always pertinent to the pathway of that chapter, and add considerably to the novel’s charm.

My re-read of Proulx’s second novel has confirmed it for me in my pantheon of desert island books (see tab above). I love everything about this quirky book (10/10).

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, 4th Estate paperback.
The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W Ashley (O/P, used copies available at a price!).

A Whale of a Read!

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

This was our Book Group’s choice for our Christmas  read – we always tackle a classic over the festive season. This time we couldn’t decide between ourselves, so everyone threw a suggestion in the hat and this came out.

Moby Dick is one of those books I always planned to read eventually as it is such an influential classic.  Amazingly I didn’t have a copy so I ordered the Oxford World’s Classics edition, which has helpful notes, an introductory essay by Tony Tanner which explores many of the facets of the book, and extracts from Melville’s correspondence with Nathaniel Hawthorne about the book.  Christmas came and it hadn’t arrived – stuck in the backlog, so I downloaded it as my first Kindle book – paying for the same edition I’d ordered.

Published in 1851, Moby Dick is the tale of one man’s obsession with catching a wily old white whale.  Captain Ahab lost his leg to Moby, and won’t stop at anything to get his revenge on the creature.   The story is narrated by Ishmael, who wants to get experience on a whaling ship.

In New Bedford, Massachusetts, he agrees to share a room, little knowing the other occupant is a tattooed Polynesian harpooner; however once they both get over the shock, Ishmael and Queequeg become bosum pals and Queequeg is, despite his savage ways, a delight and fast became my favourite character.

Before leaving for Nantucket to find a ship, they visit the Seaman’s Bethel – the Whaler’s chapel in New Bedford.  This is real (see right).  On my last US holiday back in 2004 we passed through New Bedford (on our way to Battleship Cover at Fall River with its collection of old naval vessels).  Anyway, we visited the whaling museum and passed by the chapel, which sadly wasn’t open but did provide the photo-op.

Back to the whale, off they go to Nantucket where they sign on for the crew of the Pequod which is due to sail on a three year voyage.  We’re up to chapter 16 and still no sign of Captain Ahab; Ishmael is getting curious, worried even about his to-be boss …

Turning back I accosted Captain Peleg, inquiring where Captain Ahab was to be found.
‘And what dost thou want of Captain Ahab? It’s all right enough; thou art shipped.’
‘Yes, but I should like to see him.’
‘But I don’t think thou wilt be able to at present. I don’t know exactly what’s the matter with him; but he keeps close inside the house; a sort of sick, and yet he don’t look so. In fact, he ain’t sick; but no, he isn’t well either. Any how, young man, he won’t always see me, so I don’t suppose he will thee. He’s a queer man, Captain Ahab – so some think – but a good one. Oh, thou’lt like him well enough; no fear, no fear. He’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn’t speak much; but, when he does speak, then you may well listen….’

We don’t fully meet Ahab for another twelve chapters, and several days after setting sail.

It was one of those less lowering, but sill grey and gloomy enough mornings of the transition, when with a fair wind the ship was rushing through the water with a vindictive sort of leaping and melancholy rapidity, that as I mounted to the deck at the call of the forenoon watch, so soon as I leveled my glance towards the taffrail, foreboding shivers ran over me. Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarterdeck.

I’m not going to outline any more of the plot, but you can see that it’s shaping up to be an epic saga – and I would have been very happy to read it as such. However, the book is much more than an adventure yarn.

Melville had experience as a sailor on a whaling-ship, and he was inspired by actual events earlier in the 1800s when a Nantucket ship was sunk after being rammed by a whale, and the alleged killing of a great albino whale off the coast of Chile. Melville has Ishmael, the character is himself an auto-didact, tell us all he learns about whales, whaling and the philosophy of it all – and I do mean all! We have many chapters on the natural history of this giant creature – all the different sub-species, whale anatomy – with individual chapters on the spout, tail, and so on. Then there were chapters about the business of whaling in great detail.  Melville wants to educate us as well as entertain and make us think.

For me, this broke up the story too much, so that I ended up skimming through the whaling manual to cut to the chase, (rather as I did with War and Peace on my first reading as a teenager – I only read the Peace chapters fully).   This destroyed the momentum of the plot and diluted the impact of the sad tale for me.  Whatever you may think of it though, whales and whaling during this time-period are a fascinating business. Overall, I’m really glad I persevered to the end – it was a very worthwhile read, and those who did likewise in our group also got a lot out of this revered tome. (7/10 overall)

One of our group watched the John Huston film starring Gregory Peck to back it up, (the film also has a magnificent cameo by Orson Welles as the preacher in the chapel so I’m told).

On perusing my shelves, I may not have had a copy of Moby Dick, but I did find two more well thought of books on whales and whaling – Leviathan by Philip Hoare, and In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philibrick – both of which I am now minded to read sooner rather than later!

P.S. Did you know – the First Mate of the Pequod is called ‘Starbuck’ – and they did name Starbucks after him, although apparently only after Pequod was rejected!

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To buy from, click below:
Moby Dick (Oxford World’s Classics) by Herman Melville
Moby Dick [DVD] starring Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, directed by John Huston (1956)
Moby Dick [DVD] Mini-series starring Patrick Stewart (2004)
… and some further reading:
In the Heart of the Sea: The Epic True Story that Inspired ‘Moby Dick’ by Nathaniel Philibrick
Leviathan by Philip Hoare

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