Titanic Fans, Rejoice – A Review of The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

The Midnight Watch Book Cover The Midnight Watch
David Dyer

As 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.

 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for the review copy!

The Midnight Watch, David Dyer’s account of the sinking of the Titanic and its aftermath, is one of the best pieces of historical fiction I’ve read in years. Dyer’s ability to bring history to life with his beautiful writing and poignant attention to detail, coupled with his talent for heightening dramatic irony, make this book a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in the Titanic disaster.

One of the most tragic and compelling things about the Titanic, aside from the staggeringly high death toll, is that the catastrophe could and should have easily been avoided. There were so many opportunities to avert disaster: If only the ship hadn’t been traveling so fast in the dark ice field…. If only there had been enough lifeboats for all passengers…. If only another ship could have arrived on the scene sooner, and saved more lives….

This last “if only” is the focus of The Midnight Watch. History tells us that the Californian, another steamer, was only six miles away from the Titanic when she struck the iceberg. The crew saw the distress rockets and were close enough to save hundreds of lives – yet they did nothing. 

The Midnight Watch delves into the mystery behind what happened that fateful April night, and man, is it fascinating. The point of view jumps from the crew of the Californian, trying to cover up their failure, to a young girl on board the doomed ship, to an intrepid reporter who won’t rest until he gets to the bottom of the Californian’s dirty little secret:

“People tell me there’s no such a thing as love at first sight. I don’t know about that. But I do know that there’s such a thing as a story at first sight. And there was something about these men – their stillness, perhaps, or maybe their unimpeachable solidarity – that told me at once that something strange had happened on this ship, something more than ‘a nice little story.’”

Dyer does a brilliant job of setting all of the pieces in place and building the reader’s anticipation and sense of dramatic irony. I had goosebumps for the duration of this book and was in a constant state of helpless dread. Modern-day readers know how the story of the Titanic plays out, but the characters in the book do not, and that’s what makes The Midnight Watch so heart-wrenching. All you can do is sit and watch as the events unfold.

You’ll shiver when, on the night of April 14, the captain of the Californian casually tells the officer on duty that “it should be a quiet watch tonight.” You’ll cringe when you listen to the White Star Line’s spokesman naively ensure the media, shortly before the ship sinks beneath the waves, that “his understanding was that [the damage] was slight and the ship was making her way to Halifax under her own steam.” You’ll silently, futilely plead with the characters to pay closer attention to the warning signs, and chills will go down your spine when the unwitting crew of the Californian watches the “mysterious ship’s” lights finally blink out in the wee hours of the morning on April 15.

Dyer has a gift for choosing descriptions and details that bring this story to life in excruciating vividness. He immerses you in the sounds of foghorns calling in the night and Morse code tapping in the wires room, and paints a picture of sailors “lying in their bunks with less than half an inch of steel between their sleeping heads and the black Atlantic hissing past outside.” He writes a scene from the perspective of a passenger on board the sinking Titanic who spots the Californian‘s lights and waits patiently, but in vain, for rescuers to arrive. His reporter reveals the horrifying statistic that “fifty-eight first-class men had found their way into the lifeboats but fifty-three third-class children had not.” Every sentence Dyer writes cuts straight to your heart.

One of the things that I found fascinating about The Midnight Watch is that it focuses not just on the night of the Titanic disaster, but also on the fall-out that takes place afterwards. Dyer shows the reactions of the world as they learn the ship’s fate and describes the U.S. president’s grief at the loss of his friends who were on board. He depicts the moment when the ship Carpathia semaphores the number of dead to the Californian – 1,500 lost – and goes into detail about the U.S. Senate’s investigation into the the causes of the tragedy.

My only complaint about The Midnight Watch is a minor one: it’s tough to keep all of the characters straight. There are lots of people to remember, and trying to keep track of all of their names and jobs and why they’re significant to the story is challenging at times.

All things considered, I couldn’t be more impressed with Dyer’s debut novel. It’s so good it hurts, a rich, fascinating book that does what all great historical fiction should: sparks curiosity in its reader and inspires them to discover more about the subject matter. Highly, highly recommended.

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles Book Cover The Song of Achilles
Madeline Miller

Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.

Achilles, 'best of all the Greeks', is everything Patroclus is not — strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess — and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative companionship gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel and deathly pale sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate.

Review:

Of all the characters in Greek mythology, Achilles has always fascinated me the most. Regardless of whether he’s portrayed as a hero or a villain, he is always shown as a force to be reckoned with, awe-inspiring and larger than life. I’ve yet to meet an Achilles story I don’t like, but Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles is easily my favorite. That’s right – this book is even better than the movie Troy. Those of you who’ve seen the movie, starring a blond, glorious Brad Pitt in Grecian armor, understand just how high an accolade that is.

Miller’s novel is narrated by Patroclus, the young man Achilles loves best of anyone in the world. Patroclus’ role in the tale of Achilles varies from storyteller to storyteller; in some versions of the myth he’s cast as a cousin or a trusted friend, while in others he isn’t present at all. In Miller’s tale, Patroclus is Achilles’ lover, which is the role in which I like him best. Patroclus bears witness to Achilles’ life, growing up as his steadfast companion and remaining at his side during Achilles’ rise to greatness as a hero of the Trojan War.

Through Patroclus’s eyes, you get to see a different side of Achilles. He’s still a warrior, an almost bloodthirsty man-among-men, but at the same time there’s a boyishness to him, an innocence. This is what draws Patroclus to him, but at the same time it makes Patroclus incredibly afraid for Achilles. No matter how talented a fighter he is, he’s guileless, a dangerous quality when surrounded by men like Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Odysseus.

I fell for Achilles and Patroclus as they fell for each other. They’re just so right together that witnessing their relationship feels like a privilege, like you’re a part of the specialness of their love, with all the joy and heartbreak this entails.The love that they share is so pure and tender and true that reading about it is almost like looking directly into the sun – it’s so bright that it hurts, as painful as it is beautiful. 

The blissful agony of The Song of Achilles is that it’s the epitome of dramatic irony. The story of the Trojan War is well known, so you go into the story fully aware of the fate that awaits Patroclus and his beloved. They have no idea what’s in store, but you do, and it’s a dark cloud over the happy couple. They’re so blissful, so hopeful, that it breaks your heart to know how it’s all going to end. It makes for a very intense and emotional reading experience.

The best example of this is when Achilles’ allies try to convince Achilles to kill Hector, the opposing force’s champion. Achilles brushes this off with a smile, saying lightly, “What has Hector ever done to me?” This line was enough to give me goosebumps – and bring tears to my eyes – because I knew what would eventually come to pass.

Besides the gut-wrenching irony, another thing that’s really neat about The Song of Achilles is that it draws on aspects of the Achilles legend that I hadn’t heard before. Based on some research I did after finishing the book, it seems Miller drew on older versions of the myth for the source of her material as opposed to the relatively modern versions. There are a lot of events and characters in the book that I hadn’t heard of before, and certain elements are notably absent. For instance, Miller makes no mention of Achilles’ heel being a point of weakness, which I’d thought was pivotal to the story. According to the Internet, however, Achilles was not invulnerable in any of the older legends.

I loved everything about The Song of Achilles and would definitely recommend it to anyone who appreciates stories of ancient Greece, especially the Trojan War. This stunning love story, tragic at times yet ultimately hopeful, is one that will remain in my heart for life.