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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Children Come by Ship

by
Oliver Friggieri


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Children Come by Ship



Title: Children Come by Ship
Author: Oliver Friggieri
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 264 pages
Original in: Maltese
Availability: Children Come by Ship - US
Children Come by Ship - UK
Children Come by Ship - Canada
Die Kinder bringt das Schiff - Deutschland
  • Maltese title: It-Tfal Jiġu bil-Vapuri
  • Translated by Marina Lowell

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Our Assessment:

B : effective portrayal of early-twentieth century rural Maltese life

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       There are few indications of either where or when Children Come by Ship is set, giving it a timeless and universal feel. Apparently set in early twentieth-century Malta, this is still a world which international (or, for that matter, domestic) politics barely reaches; the only outside authority with any influence is the Catholic Church. If there is any defining characteristic to the locales of Children Come by Ship it is their insularity, at every level. Here there is the constant reminder that:

even villages can differ. Each one is as close as it is far. The fields separate them do not only engender the growth of vegetation, but also that of differences. People from other villages even look different physically. The accent with which they speak is also unlike ours. We have not got one thing in common regarding looks, appearance or education. Nature did not intend us to be the same and we are not.
       The story centers on young Susanna, seduced by a young man, but then abandoned when she gets pregnant -- she had always been told just that: 'children come by ship' (literally) and so hadn't fully realized the possible consequences of her actions. The novel opens when she is several months along and her parents throw her out, and she turns to the local priest, Father Grejbel. He is welcoming, understanding and helpful, and while Susanna worries about what people think -- about her, and then about Father Grejbel helping her -- he simply says:
If this is the way people think then it is about time that they changed their way of thinking.
       Easier said than done here, as:
     The main cultural and social event in the village consisted of gossiping about others and coming up with suspicions caused by the slightest nonconformity of behaviour.
       Father Grejbel gets her a job in the household of a fairly well-off widow who lives with her son, Arturu. Meanwhile, Father Grejbel works towards getting Susanna's parents to accept her situation and move forward. He is certain that love conquers all, and their love for the baby, once it comes, will make them see that it's better to be one big, happy family. Despite Susanna's father's apparent concern with 'honor' above all else, they tell the priest they are willing to accept Susanna back in the fold when she is ready to give birth. Along the way, however, Arturu and Susanna also develop a closer relationship -- despite Arturu's mother warning him that they are not right for each other, Susanna being from a different village, and a different social class, after all .....
       The two men who try to help Susanna, the priest and Arturu, are not very worldly or experienced. Both have learned more from books than from life -- Arturu's father had a huge library -- and neither has a good handle on the everyday life around them. At some points, despite how sure he is of himself and his attitude towards life, even Father Grejbel feels he's missing something, that:
what he learnt through books was true, yet dead.... dead.... dead.... flat and lifeless on a paper.
       Susanna's parents betray her horribly when the child is born, and Susanna flees to Arturu. Soon they are married -- the ceremony is not well-attended by disapproving relatives -- and soon Susanna is pregnant again.
       The plot seems more nineteenth than twentieth century, and much of Children Come by Ship reads like an odd pastoral-Victorian mash-up. The figures are fairly simply drawn, and Friggieri offers minimal background -- personal or otherwise --, with most of the characters not even named. While evocative where Friggieri focuses attention, the transitions are not ideally handled, much of the action simply glossed over. Yet the story at the heart of the novel is powerful enough to make for a quite gripping read, of the nineteenth-century novel sort. Admirably, however, Friggieri refrains from easy, happy resolutions: bad things happen and there are few easy answers for the characters. Susanna and Arturu's marriage, in particular, is realistically (if ultimately also a bit too hastily and roughly) handled.
       Father Grejbel is the ultimate look-on-the-bright-side kind of guy. Show love and charity and all will be well is his guiding philosophy -- but his gossipy flock has other, far more rigid ideas. So does his local boss, as Grejbel is summoned to the Bishop and set on his way, his inappropriate behavior too much for the Church and for the villagers to tolerate, even as none of it was inappropriate and all of it was Christian. (Naive though he is, Grejbel isn't completely deluded: he knows that: "his ecclesiastical career would flourish" if he just chose a path of apathy rather than trying to be so involved -- but he doesn't have it in him to choose that route.)
       Susanna isn't cynical, but she does understand what she's up against, from her family and the villagers, and the society of that time, and that Father Grejbel's approach can not win the day:
Love is really of no use. Fr. Grejbel, have you not yet noticed that you live in the clouds ?
       So he does, and so he floats off on them, too (though not voluntarily -- the Bishop sends him away) -- cast oddly adrift by Friggieri who only follows his trail so far. Susanna does go looking for him, and even if she does not find him, at least it leads her on a path of asserting true independence. (It also opens up the book to a larger world, as first Father Grejbel and then Susanna come to see more of the country, leading up to Susanna reaching the almost metropolitan harbor city (where she also runs into someone from her past).)
       The first in what is apparently a trilogy, Children Come by Ship is partially open-ended, but works as a complete story too. The central characters have not found their place -- all are adrift at the end of this -- but in its realistic depiction of life, the conclusion is an appropriate one for this story.
       Children Come by Ship feels convincingly of another time, not just in what is related but in how it is told. It is not always successful -- the transitions (or lack thereof) are a problem, and the characters fill roles more than anything else, Friggieri barely managing to flesh them out (especially in giving any sense of how they became the people they are) -- but in many ways it's effective too, and ultimately it is a pretty good read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 November 2014

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Links:

Children Come by Ship: Oliver Friggieri:

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About the Author:

       Maltese author Oliver Friggieri was born in 1947. He teaches at the University of Malta

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© 2014 the complete review

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