For fans of: The Perfect Storm, In the Heart of the Sea, and Bill Bryson on his sassiest days
Pre-order now: bookshop.com; amazon.com
Try reading the back-of-the-book blurb of The Passenger (Godine, June 8, 2021) out loud—you’ll find it next to impossible not to slip into a “disaster film movie trailer” voice, all somber and ominous:
In March 2019, the Viking Sky cruise ship was struck by a bomb cyclone in the North Atlantic. Rocked by 60-foot swells and 87 mph gales, the ship lost power and began to drift straight toward the notoriously dangerous Hustadvika coast in Norway. Travel writer Chaney Kwak, used to all sorts of mishaps on the road, stuffs his passport in his underwear in case his body has to be identified. . . .
Despite the morbid possibilities of what’s to come in this 160-page thriller—a mix of memoir, travelogue, and will-they-survive cliff-hangers—you know that Kwak makes it out to see another day and write another story. He authored this one, after all. But this isn’t any old story. It’s a well- documented, very true tale of a luxury cruise ship that suffered four-engine failure and nearly capsized, the fate of 1,400 passengers, crew, and a decades-old brand at stake. Kwak had been assigned by a travel magazine (disclaimer: not this one, but I’ve been Kwak’s editor in the past) to sail with the Viking Sky in pursuit of a rather glorious Northern Lights experience. His self-described, tongue-in-cheek assignment: “to rhapsodize about crystalline fjords, pristine mountains, and the tastefully decorated ship, whose interior is so Nordic that even all the wood fixtures are blond.”
The actual event—a 12-day voyage that began March 14, 2019, in the Norwegian port city of Bergen—reads more like a nightmarish Coast Guard report. The cruise ship was within inches of meeting the underwater rocks at one point, within 100 yards of opening up its hull on the 10-foot-shallow seabed. On March 23, the first Mayday call was issued.
Kwak recounts his time at sea in harrowing (and often hilarious) detail, switching smoothly between first-person memoir and third-person scenes based on video footage, newspaper articles, investigative reports, and interviews with rescue workers after the event. You can see the mahjong tiles and Scrabble scorecards scattered across the atrium floor as the ship begins to take on water; you can feel the ship list and the wind bite as elderly passengers cling to a harness during a helicopter evacuation. Abandoning chapters and chronology, Kwak relies on time stamps to mark the beginning of each new nail-biting scene; flashbacks—sometimes a week, sometimes decades—build the suspense. Will these 1,400+ souls make it? Sure, you could Google the outcome, but what’s the fun in that?
As with any life-threatening moment, Kwak takes stock of his life and legacy as the ship drifts closer to tragedy: His family survived their own “maritime disaster in the making” crossing the Sea of Japan from Korea to Japan after World War II. His freelance-writer-for-hire career that feels more mercenary than satisfying. His partner of 16 years whose faithfulness is in question. Everything is up in the air—as furniture tumbles and freefalls, you feel like it’s a metaphor for Kwak himself.
What if Kwak had never boarded this ship? What if he had turned down the assignment? What if, what if? . . . These questions plague Kwak as he shelters under a table while his fellow passengers grip each other and mutter “Oh, shit.”
Ah, those breaks in the tension. What makes this story stand out above other disaster fare is Kwak’s voice, a mix of self-effacement and stinging barbs that make you pray you don’t land in his crosshairs. Nothing is sacred, including the cruise industry itself, which historically is one of the biggest advertisers for travel publications.
“I’ve approached every cruise I’ve taken like Margaret Mead visiting Papua New Guinea,” Kwak writes, “the most foreign of environments that grows somehow more alien each time I inhabit it.” He’s here for work, he insists, placed among the “over-feds, newlyweds, and nearly deads” with a notepad and a healthy dose of cynicism. The disillusionment is fierce: Kwak, whose byline has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the New York Times, and yes, AFAR, has grown weary of “catering to readers several income brackets above his.” This cruise will be a turning point, personally and professionally. As long as it doesn’t kill him first.