In the near future, Britain is on the very edge of collapse. Waters have risen, the environment is sated, no longer able to support the population – the young have no memory of apples or oranges. Everything that was worth living for now belongs in museum cases. The Nazareth Act was an attempt to cut the population. Everyone without an identity card is dispossessed, living in camps, old public buildings, with no hope at all. And then one day the Government crosses the line – camps are blown up, the public buildings gassed. For 16-year-old Lalage Paul and her family, it is time to leave London and Britain. They are the lucky ones – privileged and influential, Lalage’s father Michael has bought a large yacht. It can carry them and a few hundred of those in desperate need, selected by Lalage’s philanthropic mother, to safety and a future.
Life aboard the ship is difficult for Lalage. The appalling news from the mainland just gets worse until the passengers of the ship decide to cut their connection with Britain and with the past. The antennae is cut down. No longer can they receive transmissions from what was once home. And on the encouragement of Michael, their strong, determined and paternal leader, they decide to cut away the past entirely, throwing their memories overboard, determined to forget their grief, misery and the loved ones left behind. It’s time for a new start. But Lalage cannot forget a past she never knew. She wants to go back and fight. Lalage is the rebel aboard the ship.
After a few chapters of worldbuilding, focusing on the streets and buildings of central London, The Ship tells the story of Lalage’s shipboard rebellion. Despite the fact that the ‘captain’ is her own father, Lalage can no longer feel the same connection to him that the other youngsters aboard can. Events have cut her adrift not only from the land but also from her family. She is driven to return to London and, despite finding romance aboard the ship, nothing is strong enough to keep her eyes seaward.
The Ship is Lalage’s story, narrated by Lalage, and so the reader’s response to the novel very much depends on their response to Lalage herself. I suspect that she will be loved by many. She is brave and strong, yet vulnerable and afraid, but she is determined to stand for what she believes even if it means she stands alone. Lalage is a teenage heroine, fighting the rules of society, adults, even her family. It is indeed true that adults on the ship, notably Lalage’s father, are hardly steering a true course. Michael Paul is as driven as his daughter and some of his ideas are totally objectionable. There is never any doubt, though, that he loves his daughter.
However, throughout, Lalage is unable to see the other point of view. She is not old enough nor experienced enough to have witnessed the true cruelty and barbarism of the society they are leaving behind – the taste she’s had has been enough to fire her blood but the others aboard are traumatised by the misery and grief they have had to endure for years. Nor can Lalage remember the earth when it was fertile and productive, when floods hadn’t destroyed the cities, and countryside wasn’t barren or grey. There are refugees aboard the ship who have no reason on earth to want to turn back. The behaviour of many of the adults on board is odd, almost cultish, but my sympathies are entirely with them. There’s an especially touching moment when some of the adults huddle together in secrecy to remember London, attempting to rebuild it in flour and water. But their quiet moment of memory is destroyed by Lalage’s exuberant call to arms.
The Ship is a well-written dystopia which mostly takes place within the claustrophobic confines of the vessel, the walls of which this young, lost heroine strains against. The theme of remembrance is dealt with especially sympathetically, adding a depth and sincerity to the novel which is really quite powerful. While The Ship wasn’t entirely for me – I think I may have read several too many young adult dystopias – I think younger readers will love it.