And who doesn’t love a good Titanic tale? Haven’t we all had that moment when the scope of the tragedy, the mythology of the final moments, touched us in some way? I have two books that brought the story to life for me: First, Richard Peck’s Ghosts I Have Been. My memory of details has faded, but I remember that this was a seminal book for me and the image of Blossom clutching the wet blanket still brings me chills. And I remember the little boy. And the cold.
My second critical Titanic tale was Connie Willis’s Passage, an odd and not entirely successful—but still brilliant—look at near death experiences and missed connections which uses the Titanic to great advantage and led me to read a bit more Titanic nonfiction (Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, anyone?)
So although I had missed most early buzz about Allan Wolf’s The Watch that Ends the Night, once I realized it was a, about Titanic and b, fiction, I was excited to read it. Plus three stars, and it made The Horn Book’s 2011 Fanfare.
And it’s easy to see why all the buzz: the chorus of voices is an excellent device for telling this story (and is reminiscent of the Lord book referenced above, which provides recollections from many survivors). Some of the voices are immensely powerful, and there are wonderful moments of chilling foreshadowing, moments of pathos and dignity, of love and fear, of hubris and idiocy. (Although I wonder if, as I asked of Queen of Hearts, some of this is encoded in the event as much as in the telling?)
And there’s backmatter! How wonderful to have so much rich backmatter available for those for whom this is that first brush with the majesty and tragedy of Titanic‘s doomed voyage (it’s very hard to talk about Titanic without words like doomed or majesty, I find).
The novel is written primarily in free verse, which makes for quick reading and allows the chorus of voices to wind around each other; poems flow into one another with shared thematic elements or by looking at a moment from different perspectives. Each poem is titled with the speaker’s name and position, fortunately given that some voices sound perhaps a bit too similar in their language, although what they say is distinct. Then there are voices that sound different, but this is not always to the novel’s advantage (more on this below). The children’s voices are distinct, and the two youngest narrators in particular are outstanding: Naive Frankie, who believes in dragons (providing a lovely motif that winds throughout and describes the iceberg much better than any other image) and in his father’s parting words from the deck of the sinking ship, and toddler Lolo, hearing but not understanding the complexities of what his father has done and shining a powerful, raw light on loss in his last poem.
And these are not the only voices that will drown a reader in tears: Olaus, the immigrant who loses so many loved ones (whom he convinced to join him on the voyage) due to his desire to follow the rules and wait to be put into a boat; John Jacob Astor, who goes down with dignity; the wireless operator who cannot stop tapping out the names of the dead after he is rescued; and of course iconic figures of the Titanic mythos violinist Jock Hume, who plays as the ship goes down, and shipbuilder Thomas Andrews, who goes down with his ship in an act of nobility and perhaps despair.
Other voices are less powerful, but still well executed: Margaret Brown, Bruce Ismay, and Captain Smith, who I suppose have to be included in any Titanic story, may not soar but are solid representations and not without moments. Then we have the filler: the lookout and the stoker (who both speak in awkward semi-dialect), the gambler, the immigrant girl—they have names in the text but feel more like like types, and while they serve a purpose (illuminating the lives of crew and third class), they lack the depth of character of the more powerful voices.
And then there is the fatal flaw, which reduced this largely fine (in the sense of executed with precision and excellence) work into something I cannot see making any serious contender shortlist.
The iceberg. The malevolent, sentient iceberg who speaks in rhymed verse and wants to take Titanic down. The iceberg, who has seen “the caveman’s spear, the woolly mammoth tusk,” who “watched as Christ was nailed upon the cross. / [who] watched Mohammed forced to flee his home.” Really? Really? For starters, we have the bizarre choice to have the iceberg speak, which denies some of the impact of the base story: Human hubris might have taken the Titanic down, and we see that hubris in and through some of these voices, which makes this a classic tragedy. But is it still a tragedy if the iceberg was gunning for the Titanic? (“…now that my emergence is complete, / There is a certain ship I long to meet.”)
But ok, at least one review said the iceberg functions as a Greek Chorus. And while my reading disagrees with that assessment, I could see that discussion coming to the table and possibly swaying those who, like me, wanted to skip the iceberg (and rat) poems because they detracted from the pleasures of the book: there are certainly moment when the iceberg provides an omniscience that highlights a certain man (small) versus nature (immense) aspect of the tragedy.
But even if you buy that, what about the iceberg’s burning (hah! See what I did there?) desire to take down Titanic? Or the lines about seeing Jesus Christ and Mohammed? Yes, this is meant to indicate that the iceberg is a force of nature with a span of existence well beyond ours, but to choose two figures from warm places? To choose religious figures with no real bearing on the tale? It raises questions for the reader that make it difficult to suspend disbelief about the existence of the iceberg as a voice at all. If the iceberg functions as a Greek Chorus, it needs to provide wide-lens commentary (as it sometimes does), but this iceberg has too much personality and drive to really be seen as anything other than a strange anthropomorphized entity, and provides specifics of knowledge that don’t make sense in the context of an iceberg. And in a story made up of so many rich, human voices, why throw in the inhuman voices?
And I didn’t even get into the rat, particularly the King Rat, which is similarly fraught but on a much smaller scale (whoops, another bad pun. Sometimes they just happen.)
I can see overlooking these flaws in reading this, and still loving the book (I did, and had a good cry too, although it took a second attempt as the iceberg turned me off the first time), but I just can’t see a committee overlooking it in a discussion of literary merits. That said, anyone want to take a stab at opposing counsel and argue otherwise?
Pub details: Candlewick October 2011; reviewed from ARC.