The Ship (19 February 2015) by Antonia Honeywell
When I first noticed this book getting shelved as young adult on Goodreads, I assumed it was just because the protagonist is a teenager, and that people were making that typical mistake of thinking teenage character = YA. It's being published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a literary fiction imprint, and doesn't appear to be categorised by them as YA. But I did notice that between the book being listed on NetGalley and listed in Orion/W&N's catalogue, the inevitable 'x meets x' comparative description in the blurb has been amended from 'Children of Men meets The Handmaid's Tale' to the rather more YA-skewed 'The Hunger Games meets The Handmaid's Tale'. And now I've read it, I do feel it is probably accurate to categorise this as a young adult novel, whether it's intended as one or not.
The Ship begins with a few chapters of world-building, establishing a dystopia that's reasonably detailed in its creation, but probably not designed to be subjected to much analysis. It's a future version of the UK, partly recognisable - people still use the internet (on tablets referred to as 'screens'), but access is heavily restricted; ownership of an identity card is the only way you 'exist' as a citizen; those without are subject to government culls. Nature is virtually nonexistent, thus food is incredibly scarce (cue a bit of clumsy preaching about the damage previous generations did to the environment; thankfully this doesn't dominate the narrative). The reader is only shown London, with little evidence of life really existing beyond the capital. Parts of the city are underwater, others burning, and places familiar as tourist attractions (parks, the British Museum, St Paul's Cathedral) are filled with the dispossessed.
The narrator is Lalage Paul, a privileged and cloistered sixteen-year-old living in a heavily secured flat with her mother; her father, Michael, who has an influential role in the government, is frequently absent. Lalage enjoys the luxury of relatively plentiful (tinned) food, clean water and a fixed home, but at the expense of any kind of freedom - she has never had a friend and rarely leaves the flat, except to visit the nearby museum, now stripped of most of its exhibits, with her mother. For years, Michael has promised that they will one day leave on a ship, equipped with home comforts and plentiful food, and it's the Paul family's eventual departure on this ship - leading a group of 500 hopeful emigrants - which, naturally, marks the start of the real story. Here Lalage finds herself a reluctant escapee, literally adrift, and kept in the dark; neither her father nor anyone else on board will be direct with her about where they are supposed to be going. In an emotionally involving narrative, she is continually torn between a desire to return to London and help others, and the hypnotic pull of life on the ship. She meets a boy named Tom, and first love distracts her; but all the time there are sinister undercurrents, particularly around the increasingly messianic figure of Michael.
Lalage is a good character, but inescapably an annoying one. As a teenager, she is very well-drawn; believable, sympathetic and infuriating all at the same time. She has led an extremely sheltered life, and that is communicated in her development - she is naive to an extent that wouldn't be plausible if she hadn't been so sheltered, and although seemingly quite intelligent, she is slow to realise very obvious things, to a point that can be frustrating for the reader. Her approach to her relationship with Tom is immature in the extreme - she doesn't trust him, sometimes doesn't seem to even like him, yet at the same time she fantasises about the two of them having a fairytale happy ending, repeatedly states that she wouldn't care about anyone else if only he would love her forever. For Lalage, the order and peace on board the ship is monotonous; to those who have lived in chaos, it is joyful, and each party struggles to accept the other's point of view. The reader is trapped in a queasy and often dispiriting push-and-pull, mimicking the movement of the ship, between Lalage's desire for a freedom she doesn't understand and the adults' need for stability. The Ship constantly reminds us that the teenager who thinks the world's against them isn't in the right; but the adult who's patronising towards them isn't in the right either.
Ultimately, what makes this work is that it's hard, indeed almost impossible, not to be on Lalage's side. Is she an insufferable spoilt brat at times? Yes. But what she faces - from her megalomaniac father who won't even allow her a few hours to grieve for her mother; to creepy Tom, who's so featureless he may as well be a robot, and made me shudder every time he popped up; to the maddeningly calm and condescending people of the ship - is far worse.
It lacks the action of The Hunger Games, and there is little meat to the romance, but The Ship will probably play best to teenagers because they will more easily be able to accept Lalage as a heroine and her point of view as 'right'. I found it a captivating read, yet quite a depressing one, and sometimes, though I'm sure deliberately, a repetitive one. Part of me felt more could have been done with the premise, that there was something missing and the last chapters were a letdown; another part of me was impressed by the way this was handled, with the reader's disappointment designed to mimic Lalage's, setting up a cliffhanger ending that could perhaps make this the first entry in a series.
I received an advance review copy of The Ship from the publisher through NetGalley.
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