Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Midnight Watch by David Dyer

Inspiration rating 10/10
This book inspired me to either join or create a book club, because of how I came to find it.

This book was referred to me by a complete stranger at one of my favourite bookstores "Riverbend Books" in Balmoral, Brisbane.  Whilst I was collecting a handful of books to buy, I struck up a conversation with a woman who was in the Riverbend book club (*jealous*).  She told me how the book club runs and I was so inspired.  So of course I asked her what her favourite book of the year was and without hesitation she told me "Midnight Watch".  I asked why and she explained that the backstory to the characters had motivated her to investigate their psychological conditions in more detail.  After just finishing the book, I can see what she means.  I guess every story has a backstory and that is where fiction and fact become blurred and the grey areas of real life become visible.  Why we do what we do fascinates me and this is a story of three people who make some decisions, which have drastic consequences.

The book follows two parallel stories; one of John Steadman (fictitious), a Boston American reporter who looks for the stories of the faceless bodies of those who have died, and the second story is that of the First Officer Captain Lord and Second Officer Herbert Stone who are responsible for the California.  The California is the ship closest to the Titanic (just 30 miles away) on the fateful evening of 15 April 1912.  What you discover through reading the book is that 1500 souls could have been saved if the two officers from the California had put their personal grievances aside and acted professionally...through reading the book you discover why they did what they did.

This book is superbly researched by David Dyer, who worked as a lawyer at the London legal practice (whose parent firm represented the Titanic's owners in 1912).  He also worked as a cadet, then ship's officer on merchant ships and now teaches English literature in Sydney.  This eclectic combination of skills shines through in his writing making it altogether believable and intense.

There are a number of complex issues raised through this book.  The most striking is the need for instant news (even in 1912) and what this loses in relation to the real stories of people.  The strained relations of the British-Americans also lies constantly beneath the story.  This was also a time of the suffragette movement and the coming of a world war and this is also woven into the fabric of the novel.  But most of all, this is a story of loyalty and truth and Dyer cleverly interweaves Coleridge's slimy creatures of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Captain Ahab and Starbuck’s loyal relationship in Moby-Dick

We get a sense of the two main characters aboard the ship, in the following quote: "He (Stone) wanted the captain to sense his unwavering, upright presence, to hear his silent protest.  His letter was not weak.  It was not disloyal.  It was true." p.95

Excerpt from pages 44-5
The Chief officer moved his flags quickly - 'What is the matter?' - and again Groves called the reply. 'Titanic sank here 2:20 a.m.'
Six hours ago, thought Stone.  During the midnight watch.
The signalling from the Carpathia continued. 'We have picked up all her boats and survivors.'
There was a pause.  Stone looked at the signalling officer on the Carpathia through his binoculars.  He was holding both flags straight up, the left at a slight angle, indicating that he was about to signal numbers.  Stone knew they would be his numbers - his and his captain's.  Captain Lord was, he knew, like him, waiting for them.  Once they came they would be theirs forever.  
The sun grew taller and more intense as it climbed the sky.  It poured such a torrent of white light onto the bridge that it seemed to wash the colour from things.  There was no subtlety of shading; the scene appeared to Stone at a uniform saturation, like an overexposed photograph.  Even the black pitch between the planks at Stone's feet glistened as if wet with light.  Under the black rim of his cap, Captain Lord was squinting.  Stone thought of Moby-Dick.  'Oh, my Captain!  my Captain!' he said to himself.  'Away with me! Let us fly these deadly waters!'
At last the numbers came. 'One,' he heard Groves call.  Then, 'Five.'
Fifteen? Could it be only fifteen?
Groves called, 'Zero.'
One hundred and fifty, then.
Raising his hand to shield his eyes, Stone waited for the signal that numbers were to follow, but instead the officer held his arms perfectly still - one flag pointing straight up, and the other pointing down and to the right.  It was unmistakable, and the bright image of it burned itself into Stone's mind.  It was another zero, and Groves called it, calmly, firmly.  And then the letters l-o-s-t.
Captain Lord spoke.  'Was the zero signalled twice, Mr Groves?'
'Yes Captain. He repeated it.'
'Very well.'
The light bore down on Herbert Stone.  He thought, for some reason, of his first day at sea, and the narrow, stinking pump room into which he had been sent to clean the bilges, and the caustic sludge that had scolded his hands.  He wished he were there again now.  At least it had been dark; there was not this burning unforgiving light.  He took a step backwards, looking for some shade.  There was none - not even the flimsy bridge awning cast shadow.  Light filled every corner.
On the starboard bridge wing he saw the captain standing alone, erect and still, pulling his cap tighter on his head, lest it be blown off by the wind.  'I told him,' Stone whispered to himself.  'I told him.'

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