By Tim Bowler
The Ship Thief
By Stephen Potts
The Printer's Devil
By Paul Bajoria
Simon Schuster pound;12.99
Readers drawn to Tim Bowler's new novel by the numerous and complex connotations of its title are unlikely to be disappointed by the book itself. This is a superb work of fiction which draws on such traditional adventure story motifs as stormy seas and distant islands to create a narrative of remarkable power and resonance. When 15-year-old Kit, his mother and father, and their boat Windflower are grounded by a dramatic storm on the eerie and unwelcoming island of Skaer they find themselves involved in a sequence of events which test to the limit their endurance and their sanity.
Separated from his parents, Kit has an encounter with a teenage girl called Ula; the narrative interest of the novel then focuses on two questions: how will the relationship develop and will the boy eventually be reunited - and in what circumstances - with his family?
Bowler's handling of the tension and the timescale implicit in these questions is masterly. But, impressive as this aspect of the novel is, its real strength derives from its often unsettling insights into the workings of the fundamentalist mind. Originally the home of a religious community, Skaer has now a dwindling population obsessed with the need to retain, at any price, the purity of their island, and to prepare for the imminent arrival of the end of the world. It is against their ruthlessness and their total faith in their own certainties that Kit and Ula are seen to contend.
The teenagers' demons, however, are not all external. Their journeys into the darkest of evil domains necessitate a great deal of self-inquiry, leading (as it will for readers) to new acceptances and understandings.
The Ship Thief, another tale of seafaring and discovery, may not quite have the moral complexities of Bowler's novel but it nevertheless provides an extremely enjoyable story. Here, we are in the Aleutian islands, where Captain Joshua Murphy (introduced as a boy in Potts' Compass Murphy) and his colourful crew - human and animal - are temporarily stranded when their ship, the Unicorn, is stolen by a villain called Vincent. Throughout the novel events are seen principally through the eyes of Zannah and Gideon, Murphy's teenage twins, instrumental in directing events which will lead to the restitution of the ship to its rightful owners.
A significant part of the novel's appeal lies in the portrayal of the two sets of relationships at its heart, that between the twins and that between them and their parents. Their mother, Simva, is a particularly richly drawn creation. Some of her intuitive wisdom has been inherited by Zannah, gifted with understandings which her brother is denied. From the interplay of this quartet of characters Potts shapes an attractive narrative which echoes in its rhythms and allusions the great classics of the literature of the sea: Coleridge and Melville are important background presences.
The novel's concluding suggestion of the need for atonement and forgiveness is very much in keeping with these echoes, as is its overall depiction of characters whose very existences are defined by the element in which they have chosen to pursue their destinies.
The "printer's devil" of Paul Bajoria's impressive debut novel is 12-year-old Mog Winter, an orphan apprentice employed by an occasionally irascible, but generally benevolent, master printer called Cramplock. This is the London, more especially the London East End, of Bow Street runners, docklands and a criminal underworld of grotesque and vibrant variety.
Bajoria very entertainingly evokes the details of his clamorous setting, placing these within a plot dominated by mistaken identities and unexpected twists: the reader who spots in advance the most unexpected of all of them is a very perceptive reader indeed.
Local colour and lively pace apart, Bajoria's novel is noteworthy for the manner in which it succeeds in incorporating the poignant story of Mog's past within the framework of his much more hectic present. The mother, who early on appears to him in a dream - "more real than I have ever known... trying to tell me this all matters to her somehow" - has a touching role to play in the boy's evolving comprehension of the person he really is.
Robert Dunbar is head of English at the Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin