I don’t have any answers, Lalla. Only questions. That’s how you learn.
We’re in the future but not so far into the future that the world’s unrecognisable:
I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear…Across the country, people lost their homes, the supermarkets emptied and the population stood, stunned and helpless, in the streets. My father watched the riots and the looting, the disasters and the forced evictions on every possible channel; he had the computer, his phone and his tablet and juggled them constantly, prowling about the flat and never seeming to sleep. The government resigned, and then came the tanks, and the troops with their terrible guns. My father vanished. Oxford Street burned for three weeks, and I watched the orange skies from the circle of my mother’s arms, weeping for him.
Our narrator is Lalage, who turns sixteen in the opening pages of the novel. Her father, Michael Paul, returns soon after his disappearance having sold his invention, the Dove, to the military government. The Dove registers people’s ‘screens’ (tablets) and they’re given an identity card with their screen address encoded, traceable by satellite. Important information is communicated via screen so those registered ‘got the information they needed to survive’.
The Dove makes Michael Paul a very rich man. As the world disintegrates, he uses that money to build a ship; a future for Lalla (as her father calls her), a safe haven.
On Lalage’s birthday, her father brings her a diamond he’s swapped for a tin of peaches. As St. James’ Park is bombed, eradicating those attempting to build an alternative society outside government control, Lalage’s parents argue about whether it’s time to move onto the ship. When Lalage’s mother hears a scream on the street, she moves to the window and is shot. The only place with the equipment and expertise to save her is the ship; they leave immediately.
The ship is a version of paradise, stocked with everything you might need and more. At her first meal, Lalage is served chicken and pineapple cake. She hasn’t tasted chicken in five years and has never seen pineapple before. Her father presents her with a screen and reveals it contains photographs of exhibits from every museum and art gallery. She begins to get to know the people on board and realises that they’ve been chosen by her father to be part of his dream. But Lalage isn’t clear as to exactly what that dream is; where is the ship going and what are her father’s intentions?
The doctor was right; I had never felt pain. I had never felt loss, or hunger, or genuine fear either. My parents protected me so well from what the world had become that I had no means to navigate it. They had surrounded me, made their plans to keep me safe, made sure that my only compass through life was my own experience of it. And it wasn’t enough. How could it have been? A lifetime ago, the sun had set in front of the infirmary door. Soon, it would rise on the other side of the ship. Already the sky was imperceptibly lighter, like a screen that has just been turned off. And as the light grew clearer and brighter, I realised that my parents had been wrong. That, far from being the pivot around which the world turned, I was smaller than a mote of dust, less significant than a gnat.
While Lalage’s mother has tried to show her the realities of the world she’s been living in, both she and Michael Paul have protected her from any real experience of them. It means she’s naïve and initially, unquestioning. It takes the first traumatic event on the ship to make her realise this, after which, she begins to listen to the stories of those around her and slowly begins to wonder what other people want from life and ultimately what she wants.
Although set in the future, The Ship reflects the time we’re living in. It raises questions of wealth and poverty; of governments who fail to protect all their citizens; of the value of art and artefacts. It also prods at religion and asks why people value it despite its failure to deliver any concrete solutions. As Lalage questions her father’s motives, the reader questions what led to them, particularly as the stories of the characters on the ship are revealed.
The novel’s tightly plotted with a number of surprising twists. Occasionally, Lalage’s naivety means the reader realises the twist before Lalla does. When this happens, the dramatic irony serves to heighten the tension as you wonder what her reaction will be when the truth is revealed to her.
The Ship has the language and ideas of a literary novel, combined with the pacing and twists of a thriller. It’s an impressive debut.
The Ship is set in a version of the world which seems to be a logical conclusion of the position we’re in now; where did the idea come from?
I don’t see the world of The Ship as very far removed from where we are now. The rich are rewarded with tax breaks; the poor are hit with bedroom tax. People come out of the theatre and, on their way to dinner, step over someone who has nowhere to sleep. Public services are privatised and a very few people become very, very rich on the back of it. Our financial systems make it possible for people to become stratospherically wealthy. There’s a new kind of fear abroad in the world now, too, and I’m frightened of what it may do to people. And on a quieter level, so much everyday life takes place on the Internet – from supermarket shopping to booking holidays to disseminating information – that those who aren’t online are genuinely disenfranchised. That’s all reflected in the London of the opening chapters.
But the idea – the actual notion of a man buying a cruise ship and populating it with genuinely kind, well-motivated people – was crystallised when I married and had children. I had this little unit of love and happiness that I wanted to protect; how could it be done? (I’m not about to buy a cruise ship, by the way.)
The narration is first person from Lalla’s point-of-view. Did her naivety help with plotting the novel – deciding what to withhold from the reader, for example?
Yes, that was a deliberate decision. When I experimented with third person, I found myself writing huge chunks of explanation. ‘Because food was scarce, Lalla and her mother had to keep a constant eye on the screen to find out when the next distribution was to take place…’ It just didn’t work. But because Lalla is educated and literate, she’s able to explain the workings of the world (as she sees it) as she narrates the events of the novel. And her naivete, I hope, is an indication to the reader of how sheltered her life is – of how much worse things are for people without her privileges.
There are a number of references to Christianity in the novel – The Exodus Act; The Nazareth Act; the apple given to Lalla – and Michael Paul seems to see himself as some sort of leader of men, giving the people a version of Eden. Are you suggesting that religion works as a comfort to some rather than a solution for all?
Now that is a fascinating question. The Biblical references are deliberate, and Michael definitely becomes a quasi-religious figure to the people of the ship. It’s a way of showing how ready the ship people are to resign responsibility for the big questions that need answering. They have absolute trust in him – and that absolute trust has worked out pretty well for them, so where’s their motivation for questioning him? And yet, power without interrogation is a dangerous thing.
I’m aware that doesn’t quite answer the question…for me, religion is both a power for extraordinary good and an excuse for the most mindboggling horror. The trouble comes when religious faith ceases to be intellectually active, or becomes so intellectually active that it forgets it’s dealing with human beings. I don’t understand, for example, how someone professing faith in the teachings of Jesus Christ can object to equal marriage, or the ordination of women. Discrimination is so lazy and yet, as a race, we’re revoltingly good at it.
As for the apple – we owe Eve, big time.
Each chapter begins with a sub-heading summarising events in that chapter, it’s something you often see in novels from the Romantic period but the only modern novel I can think of that uses it is The Luminaries; why did you decide to begin the chapters this way?
In earlier drafts, each chapter was headed with a headline of recent news, intended to highlight the connection between the society I was describing and the one I was living in. But I realised that the story shouldn’t be bolted to a particular period (and I’m glad I didn’t take that route, because recent events in the news are even more pertinent than the ones I’d have used). So I replaced those quotations with ones from a broad spectrum of history, but that felt wrong too, although for a long time I couldn’t work out why. Eventually I realised that the quotations, whether they were from the current edition of a daily newspaper of from Plato, took the reader away from Lalla’s personal story, albeit momentarily. The Ship isn’t a political lecture, it’s the story of a girl trying to make sense of the world she lives in. Readers can make the parallels with their own world or not; the story works without them, and there was certainly no need to shove them in the reader’s face. So each chapter heading became a signpost, if you like, as Lalla makes her way forwards. Chapter summaries are also a feature of some children’s books – The Land of Green Ginger and Winnie the Pooh, for example – and although The Ship is not a children’s book, Lalla is still very much a child.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
Oh, Naomi, how long have you got? That’s harder than the religion question. George Eliot. Charlotte Bronte. Katherine Mansfield. Elizabeth Bowen. Jean Rhys. Margaret Atwood. Helen Dunmore. Jane Smiley. Maggie Gee. Salley Vickers… and the number of incredible new writers I’ve come across since my own book deal came through makes me feel that the future is very bright indeed.
Huge thanks to Antonia Honeywell for the interview and to W&N for the review copy.