“The Passenger” by Chaney Kwak
In his new memory-slash-survival story, author and travel writer Chaney Kwak recaps 48 hours on the “Viking Sky” that has aged him for decades.
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Kind: non-fictional works / memory
For fans of: The perfect storm, in the heart of the sea, and Bill Bryson in his most sassy days
Pre order now: librairie.com; amazon.com
Try to read the blurb on the back of the book The passenger (Godine, June 8, 2021) out loud, it will be almost impossible not to slip into a voice of a “disaster film trailer”, all dark and threatening:
In March 2019, the Viking sky cruise ship was hit by a bomb cyclone in the North Atlantic. Rocked by 60-foot swells and gales of 87 mph, the vessel lost power and began to drift directly towards the notoriously dangerous coast of Hustadvika in Norway. Travel writer Chaney Kwak, accustomed to all kinds of incidents on the road, stuffs his passport into his underwear in case his body needs to be identified. . . .
Despite the morbid possibilities of what will come in this 160-page thriller – a mix of memoir, travelogue, and suspense will survive – you know Kwak is stepping out to see another day and write another story. He’s the author of it, after all. But this is not an old story. It’s a well documented, the very true story 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 instructed by a travel magazine (disclaimer: not this one, but I have been the editor of Kwak in the past) to navigate with the Viking sky in pursuit of a rather glorious Northern Lights experience. Its ironic mission: “to rejoice in the crystalline fjords, the pristine mountains and the tastefully decorated ship, whose interior is so Nordic that even all the wooden accessories are blond.”
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The actual event – a 12-day trip that began on March 14, 2019 in the Norwegian port city of Bergen – looks more like a nightmarish coastguard report. The cruise ship was inches away from meeting the underwater rocks at one point, within 100 yards of its hull opening on the shallow 10-foot seabed. On March 23, the first Mayday appeal was launched.
Kwak chronicles his time at sea in poignant (and often hilarious) detail, moving smoothly between first-person memoirs and third-person scenes based on video footage, newspaper articles, investigative reports and interviews with rescuers after the event. You can see the mahjong tiles and Scrabble scorecards strewn across the floor of the atrium as the ship begins to take on water; you can feel the list of ships and the wind bite as elderly passengers cling to a harness during a helicopter evacuation. Ditching chapters and timeline, Kwak relies on timestamps to mark the start of each biting new scene; flashbacks – sometimes a week, sometimes decades – create suspense. Will these 1,400+ souls make it? Of course, you can google the result, but how fun is that?
As with any life-threatening moment, Kwak takes stock of his life and legacy as the ship draws closer to tragedy: his family survived their own “maritime disaster in the making” by crossing the Sea of Japan from Korea in Japan after WWII. His career as a freelance writer who feels more mercenary than satisfying. His 16-year-old companion whose loyalty is called into question. It’s all in the air – as the furniture tumbles and tumbles, it feels like it’s a metaphor for Kwak himself.
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What if Kwak had never boarded this ship? What if he had refused the mission? What if, what if? . . . These questions torment Kwak as he takes cover under a table while his fellow travelers stick together and mutter “Oh, shit”.
Ah, those breaks in the tension. What sets this story apart from other catastrophes is Kwak’s voice, a mixture of self-effacement and stinging spikes that make you pray you don’t land in his sights. Nothing is sacred, including the cruise industry itself, which is historically one of the biggest advertisers of travel publications.
“I have approached all the cruises I have taken like Margaret Mead visiting Papua New Guinea,” writes Kwak, “the most alien of environments that becomes more and more alien each time I inhabit it. He’s there for the job, he insists, placed among the “supercharged, newlyweds and nearly dead” with a notepad and a healthy dose of cynicism. Disillusionment is fierce: Kwak, whose signature appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the New York Times, and yes, AFAR, got tired of “answering readers several income brackets above his own”. This cruise will be a turning point, both personally and professionally. As long as it doesn’t kill him first.
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