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by Susan Wilkinson

It is easy to underestimate the writing skills required for non-fiction. The primary purpose of a novel is to tell a story in a style that is as interesting/ thrilling/horrific/romantic, etc, as the subject matter requires. The style, in fiction, is generally more important than the content. Non-fiction is more concerned with content, but this does not mean that style is unimportant. We have all found ourselves bored to tears by books about subjects we thought were interested in. Conversely, many of us have read the most fascinating books about subjects we had thought were boring.

Susan Wilkinson’s skills as a non-fiction writer are of the very best. She has researched the "life and times" of the ship Mimosa rigorously, over a long period. As a descendant of the doctor who accompanied the Welsh settlers on their voyage to Patagonia in 1865, she is well placed to do so. However, it is the way she tells the story that makes this a truly remarkable work.

An alternative title for the book might be "Everything you ever wanted to know about ships". She begins with a potted history of ships and sailing, continuing with a brief family history of the Halls, master shipbuilders of Aberdeen. We learn which timbers are best to use, how they are cut, transported, seasoned and pinned together to make a ship. We learn about the stars of the Southern Cross. We find out all kinds of things we would never have anticipated when we first picked up the book.

When we do eventually come to the historic voyage to Patagonia, we are treated to detailed information about the crew and passengers, the pots and pans the emigrants took with them, the way they spent their time, the illnesses from which they suffered. Curiously, the factual detail does not obscure our appreciation of the ordeal these people underwent nor does it affect our opinion of their courage and fortitude. Even before they were out of sight of Wales, they endured a terrible storm, and their two-month journey was anything but enjoyable. By the time they arrived in South America, some families had lost their only children; many must found themselves wondering whether the voyage had been worth while.

The story of Mimosa continues, however, long after the famous voyage is over, into her later life and eventual "death". For this is the story of the ship, not of its temporary passengers and crew – many of whom probably never gave it a thought, either before embarking or after their arrival in the New World. Susan Wilkinson tells the biography of an inanimate object with style and great care, conveying the "character" of Mimosa in such a way as to make us admire her creators and regret her passing, as we would that of a much-loved friend.


ISBN 0 86243 952 3
Y Lolfa, 2007
247pp, paperback
Retail price 12.95 

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher