The Stowaway

by Robert Hough

Published by Random House Canada

232 pages, 2004





Bittersweet Sea

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


It's rare that a title I start considering for January's Best of the Year feature comes up so early, but Robert Hough's brilliant story of violence at sea has already claimed its spot on my picks for 2004. Seldom do I encounter such clean, vivid and powerful writing, refreshingly devoid of the pretentious artificial seriousness that afflicts too many Canadian novels.

After his successful debut with 2002's The Final Confessions of Mabel Stark (soon to be made into a movie), Robert Hough became intrigued with a story that made headlines in the mid-1990s: the tale of the Maersk Dubai, a container ship that was the scene of a kind of passive murder. When the Taiwanese officers of the Dubai discovered two Romanian stowaways who had jumped onboard in Spain, they set them loose on a liferaft, telling the terrified men that "Morocco is just ninety kilometers away and they have a raft and all they have to do is hold on and the tides will carry them in."

This is a lie, of course, and soon the men are sucked under the massive ship's wake and drowned, while the mostly-Filipino crew watch in powerless horror.

One of the risks Hough takes is to paint the Chinese officers as the potential villains of this piece, and the crew members as marginalized saints. The fact that racial differences come into play could be a serious problem, but Hough is careful to make all his characters human enough to avoid stereotyping.

Bosun Rodolfo Miguel is particularly wracked with conscience when the two men drown. A deeply religious man who keenly feels the separation from his wife and children, he agonizes over the cover-up that seems to be allowing the officers to get away with murder. At great risk to his own safety, Miguel meets in secret with other members of the crew and, as they try to find a sane way to deal with an insane situation, they become uncomfortably aware of the fact that no one onboard is truly safe.

Meanwhile Hough is carefully building another story in Romania. Daniel Pacepa has lived his entire 19 years in a kind of traumatic shock, enduring the grinding force of political oppression under Ceausescu. He drinks in bars, chases women ("The mere mention of what she is -- Roma, the girl's a Roma -- causes a staticky warmth to snake down his spine") and generally tries to lose himself, to outrun his own intelligence and the unbearable awareness of "how it is to realize that life is fleeting, and gorgeous, and cruel."

He hooks up with a rather dimwitted man named Gheorghe, and the two of them find refuge in a mission in Algeciras, Spain, where they only need to pretend to be Christian to receive bed and board. But it is an aimless sort of existence, fueled by a constant stream of alcohol ("The wine comes in low, brown earthenware jugs, and it tastes of plums and black earth") and blighted by the constant threat of violence. In one hair-raising scene Daniel and Gheorghe narrowly avoid being murdered by a pack of out-of-control skinheads.

The two men hold on to a naive belief that they only need to jump onboard the right ship to solve all their problems, carrying them to a carefree and prosperous life in America. The fact that they choose the Maersk Dubai is a potentially fatal turn of fate. When Rodolfo Miguel discovers a terrified, stinking, cowering Daniel in a dank corner of the ship, his heart sinks, for he realizes his already-precarious position has just taken a perilous turn.

Hough is masterful at creating a tense, sweating atmosphere onboard the Dubai: "It's like stepping into a hot, damp sponge, the air so thick it feels like something they have to push against." This unrelenting, grinding stress nearly breaks Miguel as he wrestles with his conscience, wondering if it is worth risking his life for this cowering, alcohol-soaked stranger.

In spite of all the differences in language and culture, the two men share a strange sort of bond: "You know we are brothers, you and I," Miguel tells him. "We are both from places ruined by a stupid man and his greedy wife. We are brothers."

This is a harsh, violent story, beautifully and lyrically written:

A dark mash of clouds parts to reveal a crescent moon, its rays casting indigo spears over black, shifting waters.

Hough gets deep inside the minds and hearts of the crew members, probing the very human conflict they feel between altruism and personal safety.

Daniel is a heartbreaking character, agonized by a traumatic boyhood in which his father was murdered for daring to express controversial views, and forced by circumstance into animal-like survival. Hough is most adept at one of the hardest tasks any novelist faces: creating atmosphere. In many scenes I could sense menace long before violence broke out, telegraphed in subtle ways that were hard for me to analyze.

When I'm not sure how a writer does it, I know I am in the presence of a very impressive talent. The Stowaway grabbed me hard from the first page, and kept my heart beating faster all the way through to its melancholy, bittersweet conclusion. | April 2004


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She is the author of the novel Better Than Life, published in 2003 by NeWest Press. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.