I first read Jojo Moyes’ The Ship of Brides in Beijing, in fact, I have a paperback copy with a 100RMB sticker on it, from the Wangfujing foreign language bookstore. I think I’ve probably read it loads of times since then. This is an emotional read, but it’s not a tearjerker on the level of her other, more famous novel Me Before You. (I like this one better than Me Before You, although The Ship of Brides is nowhere near as popular. When the Me Before You movie came out, and there was internet outrage and thinkpieces about how Entertainment Media secretly wants everyone disabled to kill themselves, I reread the novel to see what was so upsetting, but the story says, over and over, than with just a little bit of public accommodation for Will’s wheelchair, he could have accessed so much more of life. To me, the takeaway was that small public changes could make the literal difference between life and death, and it’s the indifference and lack of concern that ultimately lead to his suicide. I should mention that I didn’t see the movie and so it’s possible that the movie’s quite different from the book, but that’s not at all the theme of the novel.)
Anyway, that puts my reread count at twice for Me Before You, and probably 10 or 12 times for The Ship of Brides. The story is about four Australian war brides on their way to join their British husbands at the end of WWII. The British Navy sends them on a converted aircraft carrier, turning the ship’s storage rooms and liftwells into dorms for the young women. There’s an amazing amount of research into how the brides spent their days and the sheer logistics of transport, including clips from newspapers of the time, but it always feels like fiction. The systems of wartime rationing, postal delivery, and military hierarchy are intregrated smoothly into a story about relationships and change.
The story is told in third-person, but focuses alternately on four different brides, who are assigned to share a room on the journey. Avice has eloped with an officer, and her well-to-do family can overlook the rush if they’ll have a huge society wedding in London. Farm girl Maggie has lived with her husband Joe just long enough to be several months pregnant on the journey over. Jean, the youngest, is only a teenager as she sets off to meet her equally young husband, Stan, on the other side of the world. Frances was a nurse on Morotai during the war, and she’s very quiet about what she experienced there. Of course, all 600 women on the ship are married to British servicemen, but they each have quite different motivations and expectations. There are some male characters, too, although I tend to skim the men’s sections while intently reading the women’s experiences. Yeah, whatever, horrors of war, love of the sea, blah blah. It’s the women who are leaving everything familiar and safe, and setting off to join husbands they haven’t seen or spoken to in months. The whole book covers such a fascinating liminal space between their girlhood experiences in Australia, and their totally unknown lives, as wives in a foreign country.