Erebus: The History of a Ship | Book Review

Erebus: The Story of a Ship

Michael Palin

Random House

ISBN: 9781847948120

£9.99

Review

Built in 1826, HMS Erebus was not much to look at. A squat bomb vessel constructed at a time when Britain’s navy found itself at a loose end after the end of the Napoleonic wars, Erebus was nevertheless destined to undertake two great voyages at opposite ends of the earth. The ship achieved a ‘furthest south’ record during its 1839-1843 journey before embarking upon its fateful search for the fabled Northwest passage. Michael Palin takes us through the ship’s life before trying to piece together exactly what led to the deaths of everyone on board as, desperate, starving and icebound, the crew set out on foot south on a journey from which none of them would ever return.

Musin, Francois Etienne; HMS ‘Erebus’ in the Ice, 1846; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hms-erebus-in-the-ice-1846-175175

I really wanted to like this. Michael Palin is as engaging a narrator as ever, whilst the subject matter is rich in mystery and suspense. Nevertheless, this felt like history-by-rote. There was little new here, no fresh lens or incisive research piece which appears to have catalysed the writing of the book. There are some fresh insights into Erebus’ voyage south, but during the search for the northwest passage we touch upon the same tired tropes which have been being discussed for the past twenty years – poorly soldered tin food cans and a new onboard heating system leaching poisonous lead into the sailors bodies, Captain Sir John Franklin being the admiralty’s fourth or fifth choice to lead the voyage, tantalising clues from Inuit that the men had been seen desperately heading south after becoming icebound, knife marks on bones which indicated at least some of the men had resorted to cannibalism to survive. There were no fresh slants on these issues and whilst they are still interesting, I was looking for more.

The book probably didn’t compare well with a couple of more serious tomes I have read in the last couple of months (Diarmaid MacCulloch’ book on Thomas Cromwell and Dan Jones’ ‘The Plantaganets’ are both history books of a more academic bent) and so I am perhaps being slightly unfair, but I still felt that Palin didn’t quite find his angle here. ‘Erebus’ is very readable and Palin still has an ear for anecdote, but this felt a little bit history-lite.

*Thanks for reading, folks. Find my other reviews below*

Hilary Mantel – The Mirror and the Light

Maggie O’Farrell – Hamnet

Raynor Winn – The Salt Path

Samantha Harvey – The Western Wind

Diarmaid MacCulloch – Thomas Cromwell: A Life

Peter Carey – A Long Way from Home

W.C. Ryan – A House of Ghosts

Val McDermid – A Place of Execution

Richard Cohen – How to Write Like Tolstoy

George Orwell – 1984

John Sampson – The Wind on the Heath

Michelle Paver – Wakenhyrst

Jess Smith – Way of the Wanderers

Zadie Smith – Feel Free

Max Hastings – Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975

Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes

Ernest Hemingway – In Our Time

Andrew Roberts – Napoleon the Great

Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

Kamila Shamsi – Home Fire

Annie Proulx – Brokeback Mountain

Anthony Doerr – All the Light We Cannot See

Ellipsis: Three magazine

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13

Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

Amor Towles – A Gentleman in Moscow


Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com and tweets at https://twitter.com/mjrichardso0.

8 thoughts on “Erebus: The History of a Ship | Book Review

      1. Thank you for reminding me of that!! I really need to try this audio books thing. Also easier on mid-life eyes! :)) I am still loving the feeling of actual old-school books though…

        Liked by 1 person

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