Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

25666052As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.

Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel–the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author’s own experiences as a ship’s officer and a lawyer.

This is one of those books that grabs you by the throat and won’t let go until you’re staying up way past your bedtime just so you can keep reading it.

I started reading this, feeling I needed a break after reading quite a few tough books in a row, and wanting something a bit fun and interesting. I’ve been obsessed with the Titanic ever since I first learnt about it way back when I was little. My little brother and I would pore over great big books about it, read any kids books featuring the disaster, watched all the documentaries and went to see several exhibitions on the ship. I visited the Titanic museum in Belfast and cried, buying my brother all the merchandise and books I could carry; if you’re ever in Belfast and have even a smidgeon of interest in it, I thoroughly recommend the museum!

Anyway, this book was going to be mine once I saw it on the ARC shelf and work, and it did not disappoint me at all.

I was instantly grabbed by the reporter, Steadman’s, introduction, which captivated me and dragged me straight into early 20th century Venezuela, and then Boston. I enjoyed his point of view immensely, though I wish it hadn’t been the sole POV through the whole 2nd portion of the novel. I enjoyed the switching between him and members of the crew of the Californian, who were experiencing the disaster on the water, whilst Steadman unearthed it from the offices of Cunard shipping.

Lord, the enigmatic captain of the Californian, remained a very difficult person to understand. I still don’t really understand why he acted the way he did that night, but that’s the point. His actions were thoroughly reprehensible, despite his suave exterior. You never see the disaster from his point of view, but only that of the people around him. He’s the destabilising feature of the novel as much as the wreck of the Titanic is.

The final section is told from the fictional perspective of Titanic passengers during the disaster. I do like how it is brought into the story, though in some ways I feel it could have been woven through it before a final reveal. Regardless, I was moved to tears and lay there contemplating the ending for hours… needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night!

This book should be released in March or April, depending on your region, and I really do recommend getting your hands on it. I am really glad I took the chance and read it, because it would have been a shame to have it laying there unread any longer!

5/5 stars and a different Leo… because this is Titanic, not Gatsby!

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Thank you to Penguin Australia for the ARC. This review is entirely my own opinion and is in no way affected by the fact that this is a review copy.

#CCWomensClassics Review: Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton

15832465Barbara Baynton’s short-story collection Bush Studies is famous for its stark realism—for not romanticising bush life, instead showing all its bleakness and harshness.

Economic of style, influenced by the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists, Baynton presents the Australian bush as dangerous and isolating for the women who inhabit it.

‘The terror Baynton evokes,’ Helen Garner writes in her introduction to the book, ‘is elemental, sexual, unabashedly female.’

Oh, dear. What a disappointing collection. It had so much promise, so much potential to be wonderful, but it failed. I have had a run of bad luck with Text Classics books, which I’m sure is not indicative of their value, but of my hopes and desires. They are all great examples of Australian Gothic literature, but are deeply flawed and uneven in quality.

If all the stories in this collection were as good as the last one, I would have enjoyed the experience and recommended it. “The Chosen Vessel” was gripping and frightening, and had me well within its clutches. Swagmen are an essential part of Australian colonial culture, and are almost always depicted as a jolly nuisance that one must feed, give work and tolerate. Baynton flips this on it’s head and turns him into a figure of terror. The “heroic” stockman is a figure of idiocy and religious fervour, not the lighthearted saviour of the usual kind. The villainy of the patriarchy is on show, from the husband who sneers at his wife’s fear to the swagman who feels he has the right to not only take her body, but her life.

Baynton knew too well the horrors of living alone in the bush, and how frightening it could be for a woman. Each woman in the stories is a different archetype, from the masculine Mary in “Squeaker’s Mate” to the timid governess in “Billy Skywonkie”. All face a myriad of terrors, not only in the stories, but before and after them. Baynton is not optimistic or positive about life in the bush for a woman, setting the role of a bushman’s wife as a hellish experience, contradicting the typical 19th century ideas of life on the land.

However, Baynton’s storytelling technique is at points nigh on impenetrable, her dialogue a complete mess and the narration confusing. I found myself backtracking over and over, having missed what on earth was going on, and jumping back to find my question is inexplicably unanswered. I’m not sure if Baynton actually intended this, or if it’s just me, or her fault as a writer. Action scenes were hard to follow, and I ended up skim reading stories like “Scrammy ‘And” because I simply couldn’t work out who was who and what was happening.

The dialogue is stilted and makes very little sense at times, even with reading it aloud and having a pretty decent knowledge of Australian slang, accents and older terminology. In her attempt to depict language as it sounded, Baynton has completely muddled it and made it far more difficult for the reader than necessary. The better stories are those with little dialogue, namely the first half of “Squeaker’s Mate, “The Chosen Vessel” and “A Dreamer”. The others are dialogue heavy, making them confusing and unenjoyable.

“I know who yer thort ’twas, Warder!” They were sitting side by side, yet he spoke very loudly. “Scrammy ‘and, ehm?” He had guessed correctly. “An’ yer thort yer see ‘im lars’ night!” He was right again. “An’ yer thort ’twas ‘im that ‘ad bin ramsakin’ the place yesterday, when we was shepherdin’. An’ yer thort ‘t must ‘ave bin ‘im shook the tommy!”

(Scrammy ‘And, pg.28)

That’s a pretty standard set of dialogue, which does make sense, but takes a little bit of interpreting. That, set over the length of a story, (and it does get worse) then over several stories, gets old really quickly. I don’t even mind a bit of phonetic dialogue, but Baynton has taken it too far.

Helen Garner, in her introduction, is tough but fair on the collection. She raises many of the points that I have, and critiques Baynton’s attitude towards the bush and humanity. I enjoyed the introduction more than half the stories, which is a first for me!

If you would still like to read them, and I do recommend the three that I mentioned as good earlier, you can find them here for free. I wouldn’t spend too much money on them, though they are published by Text Publishing, so a free pdf is a good idea, and one I wish I’d known about before purchasing the book.

These are a grim set of stories, but unfortunately I will not be recommending more than three of them and regret buying this. But hey, you live and learn and there are plenty more books on the shelf!

2/5 stars