This is another book I was introduced to by Short Stories Aloud, and I bothered to get this one signed. Antonia Honeywell was charming and seemed genuinely excited to be at the event, meeting readers and introducing her first novel. And so she should be, because it’s very good and I look forward to the next one.
(Also, what kind of great name is Antonia Honeywell? It would be a waste of it not to be some kind of artist.)
The Ship is set in a future that doesn’t necessarily seem so terribly far away. Economies, countries, law and order have collapsed, leaving Anna, Paul and their daughter Lalage (Lally) living mostly in their London flat where they are safe(ish) from the want and disorder of the streets. But the situation is getting worse: the homeless who’ve created a tent city in the park are bombed; citizens have to register and re-register their identity cards, the only fragile marker of legitimacy, to get food and stay alive. Lally remembers birthday meals that have shrunk from roast chicken to, finally, a shared tin of spaghetti hoops.
While the world continues to spiral, Paul has been preparing for his family’s survival by acquiring, resourcing and peopling the ship. It’s a huge liner, and he has hand-picked 500 people to live on it, along with all the food, clothes, amenities, games, activities they might want for a long future ahead. The new community has been living in a holding pen for years, because Anna refuses to leave while she continues to hope that in fact life in London will improve. Finally, a crisis is provoked and Paul sets in motion the departure of the ship, sailing off into a new way of living for all aboard.
He’s built a utopia for Lally, but as he is hailed as the Father for his special, saved few, Lally alone remains ungrateful. Despite the evident vast size of the ship, it’s claustrophobic (although as I’ve always thought a cruise ship would be hell on toast, that could just be me). Lally’s companions eagerly turn their backs on both their varied, haunted pasts and the horrors of the news, to focus on a now that they’ve been convinced is their destination. They have certainty: that they can do meaningful work in keeping the ship running, the children educated, the food cooked. Their needs are met, from football to pianos to embroidery silks. Lally alone continues to question and to search for a direction, for both the ship and herself. The only flaw in Paul’s plan to protect and educate his daughter is Lally herself. With a ship full of people willing to love her, she won’t let herself be loved.
It’s a deft and though provoking novel, asking big questions: is ease and certainty for a few worth the loss to the many? Should, or can, someone be happy in a constrained, finite present with no thought to the future? Paul is a convincing, charismatic figure but he may be peddling no more than bread and circuses, and it’s not enough for Lally. In the end, she makes a different choice, for life rather than what she thinks of as a living death.