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.