Felicity Plunkett reviews 'The Midnight Watch' by David Dyer

Two headlines, a day apart, evoke the confusion surrounding the fate of the Titanic in April 1912. New York's Evening Sun reported, 'ALL SAVED FROM TITANIC AFTER COLLISION'. Twenty-four hours later, The Boston Daily Globe added: 'TITANIC SINKS, 1500 DIE.' From there, the sinking of the 'unsinkable' Titanic has been the subject of conflicting accounts. Books, films, and nightmares, survivors' stories, songs, and poems, conspiracy theory fuelled by inconsistencies and by weird and cryptic evidence and the rumblings of rumour are all part of an indefatigable industry.

One of the central works, Walter Lord's A Night To Remember (1955) places the small sound of a 'faint grinding jar' of the celebrated ship's collision with an iceberg against its tragic repercussions. David Dyer's début novel is also about reverberations, exploring ideas of witnessing and working at the interstices between fact and fiction to approach the question of why the eight rockets sent up from the wounded ship appear to have been ignored by a nearby vessel, the Californian.

Subtitled 'a novel of the Titanic and the Californian', there is a sense of the forensic here. Dyer, a lawyer, writes with acuity about the shifting and provisional nature of evidence and the unreliability of witness testimony. Driving the novel is a sense of justice, and from these jurisprudential underpinnings it weighs the evidence, fills in gaps, and reaches a conclusion.

While The Midnight Watch explores truth and its discovery, it is also a novel about distress, and how distress might be expressed. Wrapped around the story of the Titanic is the fictional story of an American journalist, John Steadman, whose infant son dies while the family is living in Venezuela. Soon after this, Steadman comes across his wife and some local women involved in a ritual to send the innocente to heaven. Dressed in white, the baby's body is covered with birds' wings and feathers. As a furious Steadman recovers the small corpse, ripping apart an apparatus of strings and pulleys set up to simulate flight, much more is torn and altered. His marriage falters and he begins to write about people who have died, first his son, then victims of disasters and crime. As the 'Body Man', his mission is 'an act of justice'. He wants to 'give the poor mangled bodies of this world a voice'. He imagines that the Titanic will afford such an opportunity on a grand scale, until he finds another story, and another kind of justice. Steadman is the wounded boozer, alienated from his wife and sentimental about his daughter, wisecracks plastered over his grief, yet still with a nose for a story. The figure of the sodden gumshoe with a sideline in misogynistic remarks is a familiar one, though Steadman's drive to respect the dead offers a distinctive angle and gives the novel its inventive structure.

Dyer, also experienced as a ship's officer, understands naval architecture and the hierarchies and politics of sailing. His portrait of Herbert Stone, second officer on the Californian, enamoured of Moby-Dick and full of admiration for his captain, Stanley Lord, is central to the story. When undertaking the middle or 'midnight' watch from midnight until four on the night of the Titanic's sinking, he wakes the captain to report the rockets. When no action is taken, he is caught between loyalty to his captain and the truth. Dyer sketches his history of a childhood with a sadistic father, and the guilt, fear, and horror that circle him. In this respect, Stone recalls the protagonist of Lord Jim (1900). Based in part on the story of the abandonment of the SS Jeddah in 1880, Joseph Conrad's novel follows the crisis of a young seaman who, with his captain and other crewmates, abandons the stricken Patna and its passengers.

Titanic-lifeboat 550pxTitanic survivors, photographed by a passenger on the Carpathia, which did come to the rescue. This was the last lifeboat successfully launched from the Titanic. (National Archives - Northeast Region, New York City, Records of District Courts of the United States Titanic Memorandum, via Wikimedia Commons).

Each novel is concerned with aftermath. For Steadman, a quest for truth expresses itself in the need to articulate the stories of those who lost their lives. Dyer's novel ends with 'Eight White Rockets', Steadman's account of the working-class Sage family, parents with nine children emigrating to Florida. This part of the novel envisages the family's last hours and vividly depicts the opulence of the ship and the scale of the disaster. The Sages' daughter Stella, a nineteen-year-old suffragette, is the focus of Steadman's story. Stella is quick to sense the escalating danger and aware of the social politics skewing the rescue. She may not 'know much about ships, but she does know that rich women would not get into such flimsy boats unless something was terribly wrong'.

Dyer's vivid depiction of the slanting ship and its maintenance of glamour even as people are leaping overboard captures the slow creep of doubt as the unsinkable ship founders. An orchestra continues to play as people throw themselves into lifeboats and strap themselves to doors. Dyer – via Steadman – imagines the family's last hours in a work of mourning and restoration.

Other sections are vividly imagined, too. The isolation of the lone midnight watch and the sea's shifting moods are carefully observed. At times, an element of repetition slows the plot, but the interleaving of vantage points prevents it from becoming becalmed. There is a crisp accuracy here, in a work that leans towards its non-fictional underpinnings and carries a sense of conviction about the truths it assembles and imagines.

Published in May 2016, no. 381

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to comments@australianbookreview.com.au. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.