In 1996 Filipino crew members deserted the Taiwanese container ship Maersk Dubai at port in Halifax after revealing to authorities chilling tales of onboard cruelty and murder. After discovering two Romanian stowaways who had boarded the ship in Spain, the ship’s captain ordered the pair set adrift on a makeshift raft that capsized before the horrified eyes of the crew. This, after one of the stowaways had pleaded and prayed for his life before being forced down an access ladder to his fate below.
Neither of these men were ever heard from again. Although the captain was charged with the crimes, he was found not guilty seven years later in Taiwan, based on the fact that the bodies of the victims were never found.
The Stowaway is an engrossing novelization of these terrible events told primarily from the perspective of Rodolfo Miguel, the ship’s bosun, who discovers the ill-fated Romanians and leads them to the ship’s captain. Rodolfo is later haunted by the belief that he played an unwitting role in their deaths.
An atmosphere of oppression and fear quickly develops on the ship as the crew begin to question their own safety. They devise a strategy that will reveal the loathsome deeds of the senior officers to the outside world before they reach their final port. The tension and mistrust are driven to almost unbearable levels when the men realize that one of their group has betrayed them to the ship’s officers, thus endangering their lives even further.
Rodolfo’s narrative alternates with that of a second set of stowaways, who, living in the aftermath of the brutal Ceaucescu legacy, are making slow progress aboard Rodolfo’s ship (on a subsequent voyage) toward the port of Algeciras. There they hope to steal away on another ship that will bring them to a
better life in the U.S. The two tales drive inexorably toward each other until Rodolfo discovers one of the stowaways and resolves immediately to save the man’s life, despite the obvious risk to his own.
Robert Hough, who demonstrated his considerable abilities with historical fiction in his award-winning first novel, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, brings the story to life with meticulous, first-hand research and extensive interviews. He displays an impressive grasp of the architecture and machinations of the enormous ship, tangibly immersing the reader in the daily lives of its crew.
More impressive still is Hough’s grasp of his characters’ cultural perspectives. The thoughts and actions of both Filipinos and Romanians are inseparable from the cultures in which they lived. Hough explores both with complete self-confidence as readers move seamlessly from the desperate, alcohol-soaked mind of a 19-year-old Romanian lost in the arms of a Gypsy to the conscience-stricken sobriety of a Filipino whose deeds are dictated by a love of God and dedication to his family.
Hough convincingly creates a bond between the two men based on the shared experience of poverty, desperation, and a fierce desire to survive. This is a powerful novel that artfully combines the vivid, breathless pacing of the best adventure stories with the moral and metaphysical depth of the best literary fiction.