The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf
publication date: 2011
pages: 467 (including notes, appendixes, etc.)
Let me initially say that this book is gorgeous. The book jacket image, of the ship sinking, is vivid and the perspective makes it seem as though lifeboats are rowing toward you. Additionally, the paper is lush. All the pages, including the jacket, have a soft, velvety feel. Plus the beginning font and layout are simple yet evocative. The font used for the bulk of the book however, is not as suggestive; I think it’s Times New Roman. This discussion might seem excessive, but I spent the first five minutes with this book marveling over its attractiveness. And I still stroke the book jacket sometimes!
The Watch that Ends the Night describes itself as a novel, however, a more accurate description would be a collection of perspectives told chronologically, which describe the maiden voyage of Titanic. Generally, the perspectives read more like poems than like prose.
It takes several poems before the book flourishes, but once it does the reader is completely immersed in the characters. Remarkably, I felt compelled to turn the page, even though I knew the end, as we all do. It was Wolf’s distinct and lively characters that kept me interested. Each character (although I shouldn’t call them “characters,” they were all real passengers on Titanic) has an engaging subplot: misplaced money, young love, conning, job advancement. The only fault to be taken with Wolf’s wonderful characters is the ratio of men-to-women: there were far more male characters than female.
The characters, as well as the rest of the book, are all meticulously researched. The last pages of the book contain appendixes describing the known facts of all the characters Wolf writes about. But truly, every single aspect of the book is supremely researched. Wolf describes the likely origin and path of the iceberg, the anatomy of a violin, the complexities of a “Marconi-gram” or telegraph. Wolf even researched a phenomenon he terms a “Rat King,” which occurs when rats’ tails get all tangled up together and they form one giant organism.
As mentioned above, the perspectives are written mainly as poems. Although the book is very powerful, the poetry itself is not innovative. Sometimes Wolf rhymes, sometimes he uses meter, some poems use a cummings-esque typography. Additionally, the first several poems are not distinct enough from each other. However, the poems quickly began to distinguish themselves and the reader could often guess the character just from the poem’s tone. Within these poems, Wolf uses symbolism and imagery, some of which is very good. For example, after a young girl’s brother lies to their father, the girl divulges that “And as Elias and Father turned to go, I found myself unable to move./ Anger had spilled out of my heart and into my feet.” And later, when an undertaker is sifting through the bodies of those who did not find a lifeboat to board but instead were on the ship as it sank, he describes a scene:
A dozen men locked arm in arm altogether in a ring.
The soot-faced stokers, the serge-suited bankers,
the bedroom stewards, and the elevator boys.
Did they cry out in unison, or did they sing?
And how long did it take to watch each member
of their choir lose voice and slump to sleep?
I have always been fascinated by the story of Titanic and it came as no surprise that I enjoyed this book. However, this book is not just for people like me. The actual sinking is only the backdrop of an intricate web of characters who discover what it is to love, to die, to survive. This is a wonderful book that is light-hearted and humorous but still made me cry. And it isn’t just about the passengers on Titanic; it’s about us: you and me.
5/6: seek this book out
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