Published by Tin House Books
Publication date: March 3rd 2015
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Literary
In a place where there is a Small Island, a Big Island, and a mainland, there is a man, given to very little speech, but too fond of drinking. When he is sober he is a carpenter
A wonderful worker in wood. Every piece he works on comes out right, with nothing wasted. But this skill comes to him without effort. And because it came with no effort he has never respected it—or himself for it.
Within his mother’s house there is a sideboard of such craftsmanship it is a marvel to him and all who live on Small Island. She has never spoken of where it came from or how she got it, but he thinks of it often. He sees it in a fever dream, along with the other lands, places few on their island have visited, and when he wakes he builds a boat and leaves Small Island to discover a new life. He is The Boatmaker, the narrator in John Benditt’s debut novel. We will never know his name but we will follow him from Small Island to Big Island and then the mainland and through dangers and discoveries far beyond anything he saw in his dream.
Benditt writes with such precision that it was unsurprising to learn he was a science journalist, but it may be that is exactly what makes his prose so observational without being dispassionate. The narrator undergoes a myriad of experiences as he moves from the islands to the mainland but the quiet tone with which Benditt presents those makes their fantastical nature stand out even more. Events such as the narrator being inducted into a religious cult where he is groomed to save humanity, his apprenticeship in a wood-working factory run by a Jewish family with whom he later becomes involved, are all recounted with a quiet surety that few could pull off. It is these elements that, while literally happening to the narrator, create the sense of parable that permeates this novel. The outer story is not meant to stand alone, it is meant to stand for the greater inner journey of the boatmaker. In doing this, Benditt expands the novel past its starkly creative prose to a place of contemplation for the reader. The Boatmaker may only take a day or two to finish reading but it will generate thought and questions for long after that.