On Becoming Less Afraid of Storms: The Ship, Antonia Honeywell

The Ship book cover

The end of the world looms, but wealthy London entrepreneur Michael Paul has made provisions for his wife (Anna), sixteen year old daughter (Lalla) and 500 hundred ‘worthy’ passengers on board a luxury ship. They abandon a starving, impoverished populace and try to live happily. But Lalla cannot forget the masses left behind…

Look carefully, because that’s how you learn. Anna’s lesson to her daughter Lalla, applies equally to readers of The Ship – a bold, philosophical novel, rich in imaginative detail and replete with sharp insights into today’s world. It is a novel which demands undivided attention; a story of ideas that portrays the dystopia of any man-made utopia and the dangers of power unchecked. Honeywell’s writing is breathable – with thinking room for the reader. By turns mythical and mysterious, it brims with as many questions as it does answers. If it was a museum artefact, one would certainly cast a sideways glance in search of explanatory notes.

The Ship is skilfully allegorical (in the Orwellian sense), and appropriates the symbols and lexicon of Christianity. Envisioned by Lalla’s parents as a “timeless place of plenty,” the ship represents a sort of Promised Land. It is also a secret place, whispered about in the opening chapters, incanted – The ship. The ship – through the half-closed doors of a Bloomsbury flat, as if through a confessional grille. And we, like the novel’s protagonist, are most definitely on the outside listening in.

The ship flows, if not with milk and honey, then every available provision for mind and body, including vast stores of vitamin-enriched food, medical supplies and “every museum and gallery in the world” on tablet form, powered by a constant supply of electricity. The ship’s elect are deficient in nothing. They are comfortable, well-fed and seemingly protected from the horrors of a suffering, dying world – “the state murders, the mourning, the misery.”

As the novel progresses, however, the ship becomes increasingly sterile and constrictive, “a tin can, hermetically sealed to preserve us all.” This, a vision of Heaven without infinity. A paradise lacking the beautiful inconsistency and artistry of life, as represented in a plate form Lalla’s childhood and the other mundane items she collates for her private museum on board – her attempt to retain her humanity.

The ship’s passengers are encouraged to sever ties with their loved ones, turn away from their past. “If you don’t let go of the past, you’ll never find the love that’s here for you. On the ship,” says Michael, whose rhetoric restricts like a hand around their throats.

Without connections, there was no learning. Without learning, there was no journey of discovery. And without discovery, there was nothing but a full plate of dinner and a soft bed at night.

Gradually, as they break the connections both physical (the ship’s mast) and emotional, and set sail, the passengers settle into collective, anaesthetised mindlessness – they become a community of unquestioning fools subservient to their leader, Michael. If this sounds like an allegory for every dictatorship there has ever been, every form of unchecked power, be that social, political or religious, then yes, read on with fear and trembling; for what the passengers initially gain in terms of personal security, they lose in humanity and freedom of thought.

However, if The Ship fits the categories of allegory, dystopia or even mythical romance, then it does so with smart, self-referentiality. Lalla, for example, develops a liking for apocalyptic films whilst on board and applies the tropes to her own narrative. She is young and will survive. Her mother is the “prologue victim” whose death reveals hidden menace.

And my father. Strong, valiant, truly good, my father would rush in during the final moments, when the young man was about to throw himself into the beasts jaws in order to save me, and use his knowledge and power to defeat the beast, rescue the young man and die nobly in the process.

Having drawn attention to the conventions in which the book operates, Honeywell then charts her heroine’s story. This is not mere playfulness on the part of the author, (although Honeywell demonstrates superb imagination throughout), but surely a purposeful attempt to reclaim male-centric narrative traditions in which men are hero-rescuers and women relegated to the status of “damsels in distress”.

For a large part of the novel, however, the ship’s end destination is unknown to Lalla. Repeatedly she wonders, “Where was this place to which we were travelling, that was so far away, yet made everyone so happy? Why would no-one tell me?” But if the ship is the Promised Land, then Paradise is never achieved. For the journey is an internal one towards blindness not enlightenment for all but Lalla. A never-ending circle of hopelessness. A continuous, suffocating present, “with no yesterdays and no tomorrow.” The Ship – a vessel for travel – is rendered a grave, and the only journey possible is an assuredly “peaceful” death. London, by contrast, is a decaying city that bears “the marks and scars of the passing of time”.

The tone of The Ship may be relentlessly foreboding, but it is shot through with the hope that Lalla, at least, sees things differently. She is the heroine who keeps on thinking, the “babbling waters of a small stream, lost in an ocean of salt.” Her plan is to go back to London and establish the ship as a rescue centre to save the dying. Like her mother, Lalla develops a keen sense of social justice, “How many of those missing people might have been saved if this food had gone to the city instead of into the ship?” And certainly, there is enough food for our world’s current population if fairly distributed.

In allegorical terms, Lalla is central to the unholy Trinity of Father (Michael) Daughter-Saviour and Mother-ghost (Anna). She is told by her father that the people of the ship are her people, that “she saved us at the start” and will do so at the end of the journey. A mysterious statement, perhaps suggestive of Christ’s return?

In a fantastic opening line, we are told how Lalla was “born at the end of the world”. Like Saleem Sinai, who is born at the moment of India’s independence in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, or Oskar Matzerath whose life is plotted against the backdrop of World War II in Gunter Graas’ The Tin Drum, Lalla’s story is also etched onto an epic historical canvas. The milestones of her childhood – walking, feeding, talking – run counter to global destruction. As she grows, lands sink or are burned. She is a symbol of love, hope and survival. A phoenix rising from the ashes.

Oblivious to her unwished-for Saviour-status, however, Lalla states, “I was simply me.” Her concerns are those of a girl on the brink of womanhood, namely to taste “danger and dizziness”, to enjoy “mess and sensation,” to find love and freedom and to make her own way in the world. Her conscience is highly developed, in spite of her age and privileged background, “It’s not so much that I want to go. But I think we should.” The novel perfectly captures the tension present in us all, between self-sacrifice and selfishness. Lalla’s constant questioning of philosophical ideas is reminiscent of the central character in Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. And yet, at the heart of the discursive novel that is The Ship, there lies a touching coming-of-age fable of a girl who moves from innocence to experience, undergoing certain rites of passage, which include the grieving of a lost parent and her sexual awakening. In the words of Louisa May Alcott, she is a girl “learning how to sail her own ship” and in doing so becomes less afraid of storms.

Sex is the primary way in which Lalla asserts her independence, and becomes, “Not my father’s daughter, but a young woman all her own.” She describes her lover as, “My rebellion, my growth, my discovery. My proof that I was alive.” Her first sexual encounter provides her with a figural “place of my own […] beyond my father’s control.” A phrase surely intended to evoke A Room of One’s Own, a text in which Virginia Woolf argues for a literal and figural space for women writers within a literary history dominated by patriarchy. Lalla finds her “place” on the ship’s roof, making love beneath “the unconstricting sky.” The writing which describes her sense of freedom is tense and precise. The apple, given by her lover, is not the doomed forbidden fruit of Christian theology, therefore, but a symbol of liberation from the patriarch and a step towards self-actualisation.

There is a clear male/female divide in operation on board the ship. Men belong to a world of dynamism and decision-making, and quickly assert their rights – whilst the women are welcomed for their subservience, domesticity, and nurturing abilities. The laundry is Lalla’s given task, whilst her lover teaches sport. As a patriarch, and primary male character, Michael is pedantic, cold and unnerving. Though not physically aggressive, he is mentally controlling.

Words were what he liked. Words, arguments, debates. He liked to win. But for as long as I can remember, winning meant convincing you, drawing you into his vision so completely that you would defend it with your last breath.

We are told he has refused a government post “on principle”. His vision for the ship is idealistic and seemingly honourable – what parent doesn’t want to provide a secure environment in which their child can flourish? But his callous reaction to his wife’s death (“Had my father loved her so little, that he could embrace this new life without her?” says Lalla) and lack of compassion for his grieving teenage daughter, show him failing to live up to his own high ideals. In a chilling line, which reveals his aggressive personal desire for survival at all costs, he says, “Face it, Anna. If we don’t walk past the people who need us, we’ll never save ourselves.”

The most obvious sign that we are to interpret Michael as a Father-God figure comes in the line, “I brought you that you might have life, and have it in abundance”, a direct reference to John 10:10 spoken by Jesus, “I have come that they might have life and have it in abundance.” Elsewhere, Michael offers himself as “a father to your children, as a brother where a brother is needed, and a companion to anyone who has been left alone”, reminiscent of Psalm 68:5 which says, “Father to the fatherless, defender of widows, is God in his Holy dwelling.” Michael is the one to whom confessions are made and adoration bestowed. Emily, his most ardent follower, says, “Michael is – oh, Michael’s wonderful. He’s everything. Why would I talk about the past? The ship is just… it’s like Heaven. Made with love.” And yet, Lalla, his own flesh and blood, says of his creation, “All my father had done on the ship was to reinvent the Dove inside our heads.” The Dove being the governmental firewall and a symbol of censorship and restriction which robs individuals of knowledge and therefore their ability to think critically and meaningfully.

What then are we to conclude from Michael’s characterisation on the grounds of this analogy? That the Christian God is well-intended but tyrannical, big on rhetoric but short on compassion? That His “unconditional gift” of salvation – here given to Lalla and the ship’s passengers – actually has a cost, and that is the abandonment of critical thinking? (If that’s the case then, as a Christian, I’d have to disagree). Or rather, is the author’s intention to show the buffoonery of any patriarch who presents himself as God? Who egotistically elevates his status to that of life-giver, protector and redeemer and in doing so creates a power divide between follower and followed, man and woman?

As a child-becoming-woman, Lalla exists within this divide – caught in the cross-fire between two opposing parental figures.

They threw me into the debate as a way of challenging each other’s ideas. If they were the knives cutting through the difficulties of the world in which we were living, then I was the whetstone upon which they sharpened themselves.

At sixteen, she is obliged to follow her father’s wishes. The first-person narrative voice is especially haunting when we realise her ‘voice’ is actually her father’s – that, typical of most children, she has absorbed the parental world-view. The latter part of the novel shows her rebellion against his stifling provision (she literally stops eating). The conclusion of her journey befits her hard-won courage.

Through prayer-like invocations, Lalla appeals to Anna, her mother, for emotional nourishment and counsel – as well as answers. Anna’s response is not the unstinting rhetoric of Michael, but to offer Lalla a way of thinking that will equip her into adulthood. She tells Lalla to question and challenge the norms of life on board ship. To think logically and rationally. To notice that which is missing, not simply present. In feminist terms, it is an appeal to look for the destabilising woman, the absent feminine who has escaped the master narrative, (feminine as ‘absence’ or ‘gap’ is a key theme in the American Feminist Theorist Alice Jardine’s Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity). Certainly, Lalla loves her mother’s ability to resist the patriarch, she says, “it is the one thing I could not find in any other person on the ship.”

She had resisted him, and through that resistance, she had disciplined his vision and given him strength. And that same resistance had given me my life. I had been born from it, nourished by it, educated by it. She had given me her life like she had once given me her clothes – carefully chosen, contrived from the best that was available, but to fit. To fit me. Who was my father without her?

When Anna dies, the baton of resistance is passed to Lalla, it is her raison d’etre far beyond the domestic role ascribed to her by her father. In her words, she is, “the hidden ghostly conscience of the ship.” Like the albatross in Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, so too, Anna is a portent and reminder of what has been lost and the cost of destruction – she is also the conscience sunken deep inside Lalla, and us all.

Lalla’s question: “What would you subvert if everything was as you wanted it?” is central to the novel as a whole. The people on board have fared well, after all, from Michael’s provision. But through Lalla’s story, and her emerging voice, we understand there is often much to subvert in any society where powers are canonised to the extent they perpetuate unquestioned. The role of the writer, in this context, is to encourage readers’ appetite for debate and critical thinking concerning the dominant hegemonies of our time. Throughout history, Art has existed at the intersection between struggle and action not, as Lalla observes, “in a life of such pleasant and easy luxury”. Politically charged and socially rigorous, The Ship is therefore a celebration of the thinking, living, feeling mind – as evoked through Lalla’s. It is also a powerful love song to human history, and as such affirms our enduring significance in a fragile, imperfect world.