I was lucky enough to be selected as a member of the Curtis Brown Book Group, and Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel ‘The Ship’ was the first book up for discussion. It was a great pick, and there are so many points for discussion that it’s hard to know where to start!
Sixteen year-old Lalla has been raised in a world that is slowly disintegrating before her eyes. Floods, banking crashes, food shortages and disease have destroyed parts of the world and driven the survivors into small, isolated pockets. Every citizen is required to keep themselves registered. Without their cards, they are no longer considered to be the responsibility of the government and are liable to be shot on sight. The homeless and the unregistered are forced to seek shelter wherever they can – from a tent city in Regents Park to the British Museum or St Paul’s Cathedral.
For as long as she can remember, Lalla’s parents have been talking about the Ship – the vessel that will lead them to a better place along with five hundred carefully selected ‘worthy’ souls. But when Lalla finally makes it onto the promised Ship, she can’t shake the feeling that there’s something deeply wrong. She’s plagued with questions that no one is willing to answer – where are they going, who are they leaving behind, and ultimately, what are they living for?
Lalla as a character I actually found quite annoying – but I think she’s supposed to be that way. She’s been raised in relative comfort, with food and shelter everything that she needs to keep her and her family on the government’s list of registered citizens. She’s also immature, having been raised in relative solitude to believe that she is the absolute centre of her parents’ universe. When she’s taken out of her comfort zone and her new companions don’t want to spend all of their time pandering to her, she’s completely out of her depth.
But it’s the differences between her and the other ‘deserving’ passengers on the ship that allow her to see the flaws in her father’s grand design. She isn’t blinded by gratitude and she doesn’t believe that her father can do no wrong. As she looks at the wealth of supplies on the ship, she doesn’t see a comfortable future, she sees enough supplies that could help more of the many people that have been left behind. It seems that she alone is still troubled enough by her conscience and thoughts of the fate of the people back in London to want to turn back. And she is also alone in worrying about what they will do when the supplies run out.
From Lalla’s point of view, her father and his loyal and devoted followers have lost touch with what it means to truly live. Their utopia is based on preserving learning and creating a space where they can feel safe, loved and happy. But while life on the ship is a paradise, it’s also finite. It’s not sustainable. It’s a way of happily existing until they eventually die, but without achieving anything new. The confines of the ship and the resources on offer means that there’s no possibility for discovery or exploration.
The way that the five hundred passengers treat Michael, Lalla’s father, is decidedly creepy. They see him as a Messiah, sent to save them from certain death or damnation. He in turn urges them to cast off their old lives, throw away mementoes and to never speak of the past, even in private. They cut off all possible methods of communication with the outside world. Soon, Lalla is the only one that remains disillusioned, while everyone else falls in line with this cult mentality. This includes Lalla’s love interest, Tom, who seems to only care for Michael’s approval and achieving the perfect ideal.
Whether or not the passengers on the ship should focus on saving themselves or on trying to help others is a major theme throughout the book. Michael’s main aim throughout Lalla’s life is to stockpile goods and whisk his daughter away to a land where she has everything she needs. By contrast, Lalla’s mother spends her time handing out any food they can spare to the homeless and the hungry. Later, Lalla takes over this mantle from her mother, asking if it’s right to take supplies and run or if human nature demands that they stay and save as many as they can.
While all of the above makes it sound like Lalla has a watertight argument, it’s also clear that she is idealistic and naïve. The fact remains that there’s very little that they could ever do to help the thousands of people left behind in the fractured and failing city of London. People are desperate, often violent and willing to go to any extreme. The government’s control is absolute, the floods and disease are showing no signs of stopping and they have no plan or practical solutions. Now as unregistered citizens, in all likelihood they would die within days if they returned, even with supplies behind them.
The themes and issues raised in this book could keep arguments going for hours. I devoured the whole novel after an entire weekend of binge-reading, emerging sore eyed and with tons of questions. Luckily, we had an amazing book group discussion last week and got to hear directly from the author about where her ideas and inspiration came from. Many, many thanks to Curtis Brown and to Antonia Honeywell!