The Night Ship by Jess Kidd review – monsters of the deep

·3 min read

From her debut, Himself, Jess Kidd has been carving out a genre all her own, an intricate collage of folklore, modern gothic, ghost story, historical caper and magical realism. The Night Ship, her fourth novel, brings together many of these elements in the stories of two lonely, motherless children separated by three-and-a-half centuries.

Mayken is the eight-year-old daughter of a wealthy merchant of the Dutch East India Company, sailing on the state-of-the-art ship Batavia to be put into her father’s care after the death of her mother in 1628. Nine-year-old Gil has also lost his young mother and in 1989 is sent to live with his taciturn grandfather, a fisherman who works the coral reefs of the Houtman Abrolhos islands off the west coast of Australia, where the Batavia was wrecked on the last leg of its journey to Indonesia. One of the first landmarks Gil sees in his new home is the Raggedy Tree, where superstitious fishermen hang ribbons and dolls to placate the unquiet spirit of a little girl said to haunt the island.

Through the lurid tales told to Gil by Silvia, the bored wife of one of his grandfather’s rivals, and the more factual versions related by the scientists exploring the wreck, to the consternation of the fishermen who believe the dead should be left buried, the reader is made aware of Mayken’s fate long before her strand of the story catches up. The Batavia falls victim not only to the elements and the reef, but to the competing factions on board. The suspicions, envies and enmities that fester when people are cooped up together with limited resources are as dangerous among the ship’s passengers and crew as they are in Gil’s fishing community.

The stories unfold in alternate chapters, linked by repeated phrases, talismans and the myth of a terrifying sea monster. With a nod to the Australian horror film The Babadook, Gil finds an old storybook of his mother’s behind a cabinet, telling the tale of a bunyip, an eel-like shapeshifter that preys on children. As with the Babadook, the creature (whose legend originates with the indigenous people) is a projection of fear. “How do you describe dread, Gil?” asks Birgit, one of the scientists. “That’s what the bunyip is: an attempt to give fear a shape.”

Literary references abound: Gil is named for Gilgamesh and the horror of his own recent past echoes an episode from that of his epic namesake. Unlike the dead of Himself, who formed a noisy part of the novel’s cast, the ghosts in The Night Ship are only hinted at, metaphors for grief and loss. The living are the monsters and the novel is the more haunting for this restraint; fittingly, since it deals in part with real characters (an epilogue details the known fates of the Batavia’s passengers named in the novel). If it lacks the exuberance of Kidd’s previous novel, Things in Jars, it compensates with a stronger sense of mastery over the material and a greater depth of feeling alongside her undisputed comic talents.

  • The Night Ship by Jess Kidd is published by Canongate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply