The Ship is Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel –, it is a dystopian work of brilliant imagination set in a not very distant future. Crucially perhaps, it all feels very, terrifyingly credible. This could indeed, very well be the world we are moving toward, a world that has destroyed itself, wasted its resources and is counting the cost.
I was born at the end of the world, although I did not know it at the time. While I fretted at my mother’s breast, demanding more milk than she was able to give me, great cargo ships sailed out of countries far, far away, carrying people from lands that were sinking, or burning, or whose natural bounty had been exhausted. While I took my first stumbling steps, cities across the world that had once housed great industries crumbled into dust, and pleasure islands that had been raised from the oceans melted back into them as though they had never existed. And as I began to talk, the people in the surviving corners of civilisation fell silent, and plugged their ears and their hearts while the earth was plundered for its last scrapings of energy, of fertility. Of life.
The world we’re introduced to in The Ship is a broken place, a place where things no longer grow, a place where pandemics, genocide and flood have taken a terrible toll upon different parts of the globe. Our narrator is Lalage (or Lalla), who turns sixteen as the novel opens. She lives in an apartment in London with her parents; Anna and Michael Paul – although her father who works for the government is often away. Lalla’s London is a frightening place, gangs in the underground, the camps in Regent’s Park have been bombed by the authorities and the British museum is filled with the human detritus of a world gone bad. It is a place where your most prized possession is a registration card – a sophisticated system of I.D – without a card a person literally has nothing – they are a non-person, with no access to the tools they need to survive, no access to food or shelter. Everyone has their own screen – linked by satellite to their registration card – Lalla’s father had designed and sold the screen software; Dove, to the military government, making him a fantastically wealthy man. On Lalla’s birthday her father; Michael Paul brings her a diamond, which he bought in exchange for a tin of peaches.
For years Michael Paul has been building, planning and getting ready The Ship – his dream, his solution, it is also his way of saving Lalla, giving her a future. He has spent years interviewing people to go with them, writing their names in the ship’s manifest, the people themselves living in a holding centre until the time is right. Till now Lalla has been fiercely protected by her parent’s what she knows of the world comes from them, her mother has taught her so much in their frequent visits to The British Museum to see what exhibits remain, and pass food to the rag-tag squatters who eke out an existence there.
One night, Lalla’s parents argue about whether it is time to move to the ship, when her mother moves to the window a gunshot rings out and Anna is shot. There is now only one place equipped to save Anna – the ship – and so Michael Paul, Lalla and her dangerously injured mother race to the ship, a message sent out to the people waiting for word. The ship is an almost paradise, stocked with years’ worth of food and clothing, for the five hundred people whose names appear in the manifest. All they need now is for the authorities to allow them to leave.
“From that day on, the new days just kept coming. The ship became a busy place, a bright place, a place where people smiled and talked and revelled in their safety and fullness.”
Before the ship can leave, Lalla faces a harsh and terrible lesson as her mother lays sedated by the one doctor on board. She has no practical experience of life, pain and loss – she has been protected so absolutely, as these chosen people prepare to leave behind the broken, dying world on land, Lalla encounters her first traumatic event. Lalla is young, naïve, and unquestioning, now everything she has known is shaken up, watching desperate people throwing themselves into the water as the ship leaves harbour Lalla becomes aware of a young man with green eyes.
“Night time was new to me. In London, going out in the dark would have been akin to plunging a hand into boiling water or eating from the pavement. Although I had seen the night from our flat, there had always been some light out there – from the oil drums, from street fires, from screens. Here there was nothing. I could not even see whether my father was still there. I stepped carefully towards the sound of his breathing, feeling for the deck rail and gasping with the cold of it. Then I felt my father’s hand, and I placed mine over it. He opened his coat and wrapped me inside it”
Lalla has many things to learn, and as she marks off the days on her cabin wall – she finally begins to question. Where are they going? Is it right they have so much when the rest of the world is dying? Lalla has enjoyed roast chicken for the first time in years, she has tinned pineapple for the very first time, and finds croissants laid out at breakfast, and is given a new screen by her father loaded with images of artwork and museum exhibits she can ‘visit’ anytime. Lalla is given work in the laundry which she finds strangely fulfilling – and slowly she begins to get to know the people her father chose – though she finds their blind, unquestioning faith in Michael a little disturbing. In a short space of time, Lalla does a lot of growing up – and finally she comes to a place where she must make a decision of her own.
The Ship has several powerfully allegorical messages, the ship could be seen as a metaphor for the grasping, consumerist society that we currently take for granted. The stores stacked high with food – while the damaged, broken world that has been left behind starves. Then there are obvious biblical parallels; the chosen people, a promised land, Michael at times taking on an almost Moses like or even Messiah like persona – with his people following faithfully. This is a book I want to sit down and discuss with friends – I have told several friends and my sister to get it so that I can.
The Ship is richly imagined and very well written, it is also a wonderful page turner. I am not known for reading dystopian fiction – although it is a genre I do like, and this is one that I heartily recommend, in fact I urge you all to read.