Jess Kidd’s novels have an uncommonly stunning tactile quality, plunging the reader headlong into worlds that are both recognizable and strange, where just about anything seems possible. Her fourth book, The Night Ship, is the latest example of this gift. Part historical fiction, part coming-of-age story, it’s an elegantly told tale about two young people whose lives are divided by nearly four centuries but intertwined by circumstance, fate and one famous shipwreck.
In the early 17th century, a girl named Mayken is on board the Batavia with her nursemaid, bound for the Dutch East Indies. Mayken isn’t interested in being a “fine young lady” for the duration of the voyage. She’d rather explore the underbelly of the ship and learn about the dark things lurking within the vessel.
Centuries later, in the 1980s, a boy named Gil comes to the island where the Batavia crashed. Living with his detached uncle, Gil feels adrift and lonely. He finds comfort in new friendships and becomes fascinated by the story of the notorious shipwreck.
Along the way, both children find something mythic to pursue. For Mayken, it’s a monster that may or may not be prowling the bowels of the ship. For Gil, it’s the ghost of a girl who wanders the island.
Kidd develops these parallel narratives delicately and intricately, with a precision that’s offset by the emotional intensity of her writing. In the early chapters, she makes stylistic connections between Gil and Mayken within the prose itself, then builds upon these initial associations as the story progresses. It’s an impressive juggling act, especially because neither Gil’s story nor Mayken’s ever undermines the other. Instead, they nourish each other, guided along by Kidd’s deft stylistic flourishes. From the smells of the ship to the texture of the kitchen counter in Gil’s new home, it’s all deeply immersive. And through it all, magic always feels just around the corner.
Whether you’re a fan of ghost stories, historical novels or both, The Night Ship stands a good chance of sweeping you along in its wake.