It is 1634 when the East India merchant ship Saardam sets sail from Batavia (Indonesia) to its home port of Amsterdam. In its dark and diseased depths it carries Sammy Pipps, a renowned and famous detective who is now a prisoner, being taken to his execution. He is accompanied by Lieutenant Arent Hayes, his bodyguard and close companion, who is determined to discover why Pipps is to die. And to do that he must play a careful game with the Governor-General of Batavia, the cruel and powerful Jan Haan, who is also aboard the Saardam, with his wife, daughter, and his mistress.
It is clear even before the ship sets sail that this will be a tormented voyage. A tongueless leper curses the Saardam from the docks, foretelling three terrible miracles. And when the ship sets sail, horrible sightings are seen, sinister whispers are heard and people begin to die. Arent fears that the ship will never reach its destination for how can it when the devil himself, Old Tom, is aboard? The only hope is Sammy Pipps.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a glorious, ingenious masterpiece – it is hard to imagine a debut novel that is more difficult to follow. But Stuart Turton has done a fine job with The Devil and the Dark Water. It is very different from its predecessor and so stands on its own terms very well. It is a more traditional novel of historical fiction, its tale is linear and it is steeped in its time of the first half of the 17th century. But it is still another clever novel. The action takes place almost entirely aboard the Saardam and on the high seas. This means heightened claustrophobia, sickness, danger but added to this is the element of something strange and supernatural haunting the ship, terrifying its crew and passengers, driving them to violence, to madness.
You can almost feel the spray of the sea on your face and the movement of the waves when you read this novel. You can strongly imagine the stench below decks, the misery of the unhappy passengers trapped below, the undercurrent of violence that menaces the women in particular, and the evil malignancy of the Governor-General. Stuart Turton is a fabulous writer and he uses his skills to great effect as we voyage across the high seas on a damned and cursed ship.
The Saardam is arguably the most central character of the novel but she has a rival in the extraordinary Arent. The author has mentioned in an interview (it follows the audiobook) that there are echoes of Holmes and Watson in the relationship between Pipps and Arent but what is interesting is that the relationship is turned on its head. Here we have the soldier, the helper, dominate, while the famous detective is forced into inaction. I’m not a fan of Sherlock Holmes (I know, I’m sorry about that) and so I’m pleased to say that the similarities didn’t influence my reading. Arent is a marvellous character and, as his past is slowly revealed to us, he fascinates more and more. His relationship with the Governor-General is truly intriguing.
My favourite character of the novel is, undoubtedly, Sara Wessel, the Governor-General’s beaten and badly-treated wife. She has heroic strength, loving and protecting her daughter Lia, determined to do what is right for those who need help even if it will result in another beating. Her courage and goodness are the light in this novel. As the Governor-General cowers and hides from the dark, Sara thrives.
Menace and foreboding shadow the voyage, and the novel, throughout. It’s a deliciously atmospheric tale. It’s dramatic and pacey, the crew is horrifying and compelling almost to a man, and it is all so beautifully described. I didn’t find it frightening but I did find it very disturbing. I listened to the audiobook, which was masterfully narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt, and I can thoroughly recommend it. Having said that, there are some gorgeous hardback special editions to be found! I settled for both.
Stuart Turton is most definitely an author to watch. I love the way in which he plays games with historical fiction. I can’t wait to see where and when he takes us next.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle