The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic

First Lines: From all over Europe people are clamoring to buy tickets.  The titled aristocrat and the anonymous clerk.  The well-bred Brit with his old money, the boorish American with his new money, and the enthusiastic emigrant with little money at all.

I’m a self-proclaimed Titanic buff.  There’s just something so enthralling about the story of the most well-known sinking in modern history.  It’s tragic and glamorous, morbid and timeless.  It’s a weird combination, but it’s true.  And I’ve been seeing this book on the library shelf for about a year before I finally decided to grab it.

Told in a lyrical/poetic form, The Watch That Ends the Night is a collection of 24 different voices as they describe the magnificent and deadly ship.  Beginning not long before its maiden voyage, this story follows everyone from the rich John Jacob Astor on his return from his honeymoon with his young bride to the poor Lebanese emigrant Jamila Nicola-Yarrid, escaping danger in her homeland.  From the doomed Captain Smith on the verge of retirement to the unsinkable Margaret “Molly” Brown, on her way home to see a sick grandchild.  They all started as strangers with different stories, but they will all end with the same sad tale.

Ok, I admit that poetry is not my favorite form of storytelling.  But this book has changed my mind.  This was beautiful.  And I don’t just say that lightly.  There was something hauntingly beautiful about this story, mostly because it encompassed so many different people and social classes and ages.  A normal narrative would never have been able to pull it off.  I mean, these poems switch off nearly every page.  Imagine a narrative trying to do that.  It would never work.

But this was a masterpiece.  The poems themselves were descriptive not just in words and imagery, but in separating the characters as well.  We’re looking at at least 24 different voices.  How in the world are we supposed to distinguish between them?  (First of all, there are helpful headings above each poem to tell you who the narrator is.)  Each character also had a distinct voice as well.  John Jacob Astor had a tendency to make really bad jokes and then laugh at them.  Thomas Andrews, the ship builder, was obsessed with bees and referenced them often.  These sound like little things, but they really add up over time.

Perhaps most interestingly, the iceberg itself is given a voice and a personality.  A villainous personality, yes, but a personality nonetheless.  And that was just ridiculously fun to read.

As I previously mentioned, I’m a Titanic buff.  I hate those Titanic stories where historical facts are traded in for fun fiction.  I hate that.  Titanic is interesting enough without all that extra stuff.  And this was perfect for me.  It was clearly meticulously researched.  I mean, the author’s notes at the end of the book were over 20 pages long, but it was more than that.  For starters, Thomas Andrews really was fascinated by bees.  I was impressed that small details like that made their way into the story.

Want to know the best part?  All of the characters (except for one) was a real person.  Yeah.  That’s some serious research right there, to read about and follow the lives of basically 24 people from over 100 years ago.

In all, I thought this was amazing.  I thought the lyrical qualities it had were beautiful, and the story itself was incredibly well-written and well researched.  I loved this.

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