A ripping good read recommended to lovers of WWII historical fiction in a naval setting and atmospheric thrillers.
I write this review on behalf of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you want to have your books reviewed, check here. I know I am one of the members, but it is a great team) and I thank Rosie and the author for providing me an ARC copy of the book that I freely chose to review. Although I had read great reviews of one of Rackman’s previous books, Irex, I had not read his work yet but I was eager to check his new novel, especially as it came greatly recommended by other reviewers from Rosie’s team. The novel did not disappoint. It is a thriller set (mostly) in a US Navy destroyer in the Pacific during WWII. Moby Dick is one of my favourite novels (depending on the moment you ask me, my favourite) and I do like a story set at sea, although I’m not an expert on the topic. As we read the novel it becomes clear that the author has researched the historical period and the setting well and he is skilled at making readers get under the skin of the characters and share in their experiences and settings. Although some of the nautical terms might not be familiar to us, we can easily guess from the context, and we share in the heat, exhaustion, tension, anxiety, fear, and camaraderie. The setting of the novel, the destroyer, apart from being a confined space is a microcosms where we can find men from all walks of life, career navy men, enlisted men, older and younger men, some who’d never even seen the sea and others from long nautical tradition, and men from a variety of religions, ethnic backgrounds, and regions of the USA. These men are thrown together to fight a war under extreme circumstances and when we meet them they have all experienced things we would not wish on anyone. The story is written in the third person, mostly from the point of view of Mitch Kirkham, “Lucky” Kirkham, a gunner who seems fated to survive when everybody around him dies. Early in the book, we witness another example of his good luck (by that point he had already earned his nickname following a battle in Okinawa where he was one of the few survivors), but unfortunately, not everybody sees things the same way, and he gets bullied and victimised, accused of being a coward. To add to his difficulties, strange things start happening on the ship. Some of the men start experiencing unusual things, there is paranoia, violence, deaths, and the weirdest explanations are suggested. His peers insist that Mitch is a Jonah (they believe he is bringing them bad luck or worse and want to throw him overboard), and his life becomes increasingly complicated. The narrative of what happens in the ship (mostly from Mitch’s point of view, although at times, often when he is out of action, we also share in the point of view of a few other characters, like the medic of the ship, or the second in command), is interspersed with flashbacks (or memories) of incidents of the past of some of the men in the ship, usually those that end up right in the middle of the action. These snippets give us a better idea of what these men were like at home, in their real lives, when they were not cogs in the Navy machine, and they provide clues as to the psychological make-up of the characters (and also make us wonder what they might all have in common). Although the novel is mostly action-driven, we get brief glimpses into the men’s personalities and motives that add to the complexity and to the enjoyment for those of us who like well-defined characters. As a psychiatrist and somebody who enjoys psychological thrillers, I started wondering about the situation and coming up with my own theory from early on (no, I won’t share any spoilers). Yes, I was right; although the nitty-gritty detail is not fully revealed until the very end of the book and it is… Well, if you like conspiracy theory books, I think you’ll be pleased. It is also very believable and that is the scariest aspect of it. I had to do some research of my own after reading the book, because although I had read about some aspects of the story (it is not based on real events, but it realistically portrays the life of navy men at war and the way the Navy operated), I did not realise the extremes to which these men were subject to. The book is not only vividly written, intriguing, and tense, but it also deals with many important topics, such as survivors’ guilt, PTSD, war and fighting, the treatment of the combatants, experimentation, and the use of attention-enhancing drugs and its dangers. And yes, as a Moby Dick lover, I did particularly enjoy the end. As mentioned, the book is well researched and there is a glossary of terms and also an author’s note to explain the background to the story and clarify which aspects are based on truth and which have come out of the author’s imagination. I’d recommend it to lovers of historical fiction, especially set in WWII, people who love atmospheric thrillers, within a naval setting and to anybody who enjoys a ripping good read.