Voyage without an ending

4th November 1994 at 00:00
SHIP By David Macaulay, Dorling Kindersley, Pounds 9.99. 0 7513 7022 3.

This book embodies a very good idea. Although in essence a detailed factual account of underwater archaeology and the construction of a late medieval ship, it engages the reader's attention by presenting the information as fiction. This allows the writer to go beyond the normal limits of archaeological reports to include the purported journal of the 16th-century owner of the ship whose wreck is discovered in the first half of the book. So there is more satisfying certainty that we know what happened than is always the case in real research.

We are given a fair picture of the investigation of a wreck, which demonstrates convincingly how and why proper exploration of such a site differs from the looting of treasure hunters. There is also a good account of the construction of a medieval ship, although perhaps we are not shown clearly enough how our knowledge of that depends on the recovery of ancient wrecks. One could be left with the idea that only the discovery of written accounts like the journal allows us to understand medieval ship-building, whereas in fact it is work of the kind recounted in the first half of the book which underlies the fictional journal.

Ship is attractively presented with atmospheric illustrations in a variety of styles to suit different parts of the story. The message and the concept can't be faulted and the author conveys his enthusiasm for the subject. I did, however, have problems with the text. For a fictional account, it is rather overloaded with straight factual details. The language is workmanlike rather than elegant, and at times assumes an adult understanding. I'm not sure what age group the book is intended for and wonder whether the pictures give it a spuriously younger feel than the content warrants.

My eight-year-old daughter found it interesting, and comprehensible despite some difficult words, but her main criticism was that it didn't have a proper ending. She is right, it doesn't. We never get a satisfactory tying up of the ancient and modern ends. The book can be used as a puzzle, and the story created from it, which may have been the intention. But I think many readers would like a more definitive ending, whether in the past or the present. The ship lifted and displayed perhaps, or maybe the account of the end of the ship, which appears in the middle, should have been at the end.

As it is, the book ends with the last journal entry (the journal writer tells us he is leaving it with his brother in Seville, hence its preservation) and we are left to deduce that he was lost at sea with his ship on its maiden voyages and that the gold cross he receives as a present is the one found by the excavators centuries later. The last picture, of the ghostly ancient ship meeting the modern exploration vessel, expresses the kind of idea that needed to be spelled out in the text as well. But this is an imaginative and carefully researched book which should interest and inform a wide range of readers.

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