Monday, 15 February 2016

The Midnight Watch

It was back in year 3 that I first picked up A Night to Remember from the school library when all the other kids were grabbing The Hungry Caterpillar and Dr Seuss. Already, something inside me was drawn to ships, but even more so to the fact that a very large one had sunk whilst brand new, and with so many people on board because of the lack of lifeboats available. So my love for all things maritime was truly sparked, and in this instance, for the Titanic.

People, this was long before the James Cameron movie. It was well before Robert D. Ballard had even found the wreck in two halves on the bottom of the North Atlantic. Most curious to me was what Walter Lord so politely called the "mystery ship" between the Californian and the Titanic. I was too young to discern that such a ship did not exist. The Titanic and Californian were looking right at each other, and in his new novel, David Dyer expands on this intensely.

When our lovely Penguin Rep came by and handed me her stack of new offerings, I quickly laid claim to this one and had it read with equal speed. David Dyer does the story justice. He has clearly sifted through the 1912 transcripts that I became mired in to get to the bottom of what happened, and has accurately gotten beneath the skin of his subjects, translating facts and experiences into the highly readable novel, The Midnight Watch.
Nothing here is overworked. It would be so easy to give main character John Steadman his usual role as Boston American graphic artist-cum-storyteller to the dead, and paint heartbreaking tales of the souls lost. Instead, reporter John digs much deeper when on the scent of something rotten and the effect is profound.
If you are at all acquainted with the wider story of the Titanic, you will know that in addition to the avoidability of the disaster, there was a ship nearby that could have prevented such great loss of life. So why did that ship not respond? This is the question John seeks to uncover as the story breaks and the focus shifts between the saved and the lost. The things he uncovers left me wide-eyed afresh.
John has suffered his own losses, and the novel opens with this background. It's quite unbelievable, and I can imagine weird things like this do exist (weird, like w-e-i-r-d). Then, in 1912 with the awakening of the suffragettes, John is still dealing with his losses while maintaining a good relationship with his daughter, Harriet (she's pretty cool), who is something of a girdle for him (and she would hate my saying that, I'm sure).
What I found to be a beautiful angle was how John voyages to England and (unexpectedly) sees for himself first and foremost, the people, not the story. He's perfect for this task, and the author brings this home so well that you have to pause for thought and let it sink in. This is real.
The biggest moment for me would have to be when John looks into the eyes of Captain Lord. I found him so soulless, as much as I did when still a youngster and reading about him. And by the end of the book I was left utterly shaking my head at this man for the responses he gave and the ones he did not. I dipped my toes back into history and also went in search of images of Captain Rostron of the Carpathia, the ship that did pick up survivors. One thing you will notice as I did: Rostron is frequently smiling, where Lord is not.
Wonder why that is.
This weekend I'm attending the Perth Writer's Festival, and am deeply looking forward to hearing David Dyer expound, and to having him sign my copy of The Midnight Watch. I admire anyone who can keep up with this kind of thorough research, and highly recommend you find a copy - Titanic buff or not. It's going to be a provocative read among many ;)
The book that started it all for me.
It was just about the ONLY book I hired from the library!
Kids' books were SO boring ;)
...And I now have a terrible collection of books on the subject. Eeek :)

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