Tuesday, 21 January 2014

To Die a Dry Death by Greta van der Rol

Review by Bill Kirton
Yet again, I find myself starting a review with a disclaimer. This book was written by someone who is now a friend, but I read and made notes on it long before I got to know her. I’ve explained before that friendship is never an issue in my appreciation (or otherwise) of books and, in this case, it’s completely irrelevant. Which is very convenient because I’m about to enthuse about it.

It’s a fictionalisation of an actual event – a mutiny far more dramatic than that of the Bounty. An online search will give you plenty of articles on the story of the Dutch East India Company’s ship the Batavia, which, on her maiden voyage in 1629 ran aground on a reef in the uncharted ocean off Western Australia. The survivors, including women and children, found themselves on islands where food and water were scarce. The ship’s captain, the company’s representative and some of the crew set sail in a longboat for the port which gave the ship its name (today known as Jakarta). Their intention was to alert the company to the event and return to rescue those left behind and retrieve the valuable cargo. What happened on the islands is the stuff of nightmares.

And it’s these nightmares – with the imaginative reconstruction of the whole episode, its characters, their motives and the outcomes – which are chronicled in the pages of this tremendous page-turner of a book. So thorough is the author’s research and so sensitive and skilful her handling of it all that it really does read as a chronicle rather than as fiction. The characters are given individual life, their conversations carry the immediacy of the events through which they’re living, and the extremes they endure and inflict on one another are conveyed in balanced, modulated prose which remains clear and restrained even when describing unspeakable cruelties and barbarism.

As well as fighting thirst, hunger and the elements, those left on the islands are subjected to internal strife between soldiers and sailors, men and women, Dutch, French and Germans, all pawns in a power struggle which is a microcosm of the 17th century’s mores. If the sea has been cruel, those who lust for power and control surpass it many times over. The ingredients for an action-packed adventure are already there but it’s the confidence with which they’re handled, interpreted and realised that lets us share the intensity of all its horrors. We’re dealing with a specific culture and its sensibilities but the rawness of its humanity transcends them to give the whole an authenticity and a visceral realism which we live with the victims. For the reader, this is time travel.

The evocation of the main characters gives the story its urgency, its insistence; the shipwreck itself is high drama and conveyed with extraordinarily detailed realism. The debate about whether priority should be given to salvaging the company’s property or the people on board is not an abstraction but an aspect of the writer’s characterisation of those at the centre of the narrative. And, at the same time, the author deftly uses narrative ‘tricks’, such as when she conveys the horrific crimes being perpetrated in a hospital tent not by direct observation but through half-perceived shadows and stifled noises.

The journey on the long boat is intercut with the progressive barbarities being enacted among the survivors to sustain the novel’s pace and the different factions within those two separate strands add to the narrative’s density. In fact, it’s legitimate to talk not of the book’s narrative but of its narratives.

The story ends with a very clever twist. Before that, though, we experience the basest expressions of the worst in human nature. There is honour, courage, love, compassion but there’s also an increasingly intense experience of horror. This is Lord of the Flies multiplied several times and in its adult manifestation. It betrays the uneasy coexistence of civilisation and savagery, the corrosive contagion of violence. In fact, horror becomes a pastime.


This, of course, is a novel, a fictional account of a historical incident and, in a note at the end, the author suggests further reading. But it’s hard to believe any book could come closer to conveying the essence of this astonishing series of events. If ever there was a five star read, this is it.