Lalla has grown up in safety. Her parents have shielded her from the world’s collapse in their Bloomsbury flat, and though she knows that the Tube was closed because of the gangs, and that hundreds, thousands of people died when they bombed Regents Park, she has never had to face up to the full horror of a London run by a military government, where a card and a screen address define our personhood, where food is scarce enough that no-one bats an eyelid any more at the government sanctioned executions to reduce the population.
But Lalla’s parents have a better dream for her. A ship that her powerful father has bought and stocked and crewed, that can take them away from this dying world. Where Lalla can grow up, grow old, in safety and security, surrounded by a loving family five hundred strong.
Lalla dreams of finding somewhere else, somewhere better, and hopes that her father’s ship will take them there. But as each day passes, her uneasiness and confusion grows. Why isn’t anyone preparing for their arrival in their new paradise? Why are there cabins stocked with embroidery thread and footballs but no seeds, no building materials? Why does the sun never rise on the same side of the ship two days in a row? What is the truth behind this fantasy world her father has conjured?
Wow, guys. The dystopia in this novel hits a little close to home – but after all, as Antonia says in an interview at the back of the book, what are the people already dying for lack of food and water and medicine, those who suffocate in trucks because their desperation for survival has met with indifference, but an expendable underclass? The most terrifying thing about this book is that it is already happening.
And Lalla is the perfect protagonist. Brought up in isolation and sheltered from London’s most horrific terrors, she is seen as spoilt by her shipmates who have lost their families, their homes, who have fended off cannibals and fought against unjust regimes, before they made it to the safe haven of the ship. While Lalla questions the apparent bliss which they now inhabit, the others struggle to let go of their past traumas in order that their children might be able to live on the ship in peace and plenty. Lalla is every white, middle class Westerner, unable to comprehend the horrors that the rest of the world suffers while she asks her parents for impossibilities – a puppy, an apple. It’s a humbling, driven perspective, and it’s that which makes this book so important.
But beyond that, there’s also the question of the price of salvation. What about the people they’ve left behind? Could their vast stores not make some difference to other people’s suffering? By opting out of danger, of the struggle to retain both humanity and life, what have the five hundred on the ship sacrificed? What kind of a life is lived without uncertainty? When every day is the same, what is the point of free will, of choice? When your future has been decided by another, what will be the price to turn away from it? Lalla’s father, Michael, behaves in many ways like a cult leader, and the issue of faith is dealt with in a way which is inclusive but in no way weaker for it in its examination.
The Ship should be the subject of essays. There are so many issues and ideas here, and after one read I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of its significance. And they’re not future issues, suitable only for a theoretical examination. These are issues we are facing right now, as a society and as individuals.
As a read, The Ship is claustrophobic, suffocating, stifling. Everyone on board was chosen for a purpose – the engineers, the cooks, the doctor – but Lalla didn’t ask for this. Her father’s dream slowly consumes her, until she faces an impossible choice – leave behind everything she’s ever known, or lose all hope forever. And that perspective is perfectly communicated – I felt Lalla’s bewilderment, her despair, her struggle to discover the right way, and her discovery that there might not be one beyond the one way she could live with. This is an ambitious and stunning debut.
The Ship (2015)
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson