Author: Benji Smith. This is his first book.
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Summary: On January 13, 2012, the Costa Concordia — a thousand foot long luxury cruise ship, twice the size of the Titanic — ventured into shallow water and smashed into the rocks of a tiny island off the coast of Italy, throwing the four thousand passengers and crew members into a state of chaos. The captain and officers all abandoned ship, leaving the few remaining castaways to fend for themselves as the boat toppled onto its side and water flooded into the passenger decks.
In the wee hours of the night, newlyweds Benji Smith and Emily Lau feared for their lives, desparate and terrified after a malfunctioning lifeboat left them stranded on the sinking ship. By this point, the other lifeboats had all gone. They had been left behind.
This thoughtful memoir — hailed by The Daily Telegraph as “a compelling, minute-by-minute account of the chaotic evacuation” — tells the remarkable story of the couple’s harrowing escape, as they clung to a rope and rapelled down the hull of the doomed vessel.
Benji Smith and his wife Emily certainly had a horrific experience, both onboard the Costa Concordia and afterwards, as governments and other institutions failed to help them. However, the story as told by Smith is dull and boring, lacking any sense of drama. Smith includes far too much detail and repeats the wrongs done to them again and again, to the point that I lost all feelings of sympathy for their plight. I just wanted the whining to stop.
In the final pages, Smith describes the impact the shipwreck and its aftermath have had on the course of his and his wife’s lives. This was mildly interesting but came much too late. Perhaps if it had been used as a frame for the rest of the story- of why and how these experiences changed them- the entire book would have been more engaging. Or if there was more discussion of how the regulation of the cruise ship industry should be changed, or what programs the US government should have in place in every embassy to deal with this type of disaster occurring to its citizens, I could have found some redeeming quality in this tale. But without that, I find nothing about this book to recommend.
This book is a page turner, part for the suspense but mostly because it reads like Benji and Emily are telling us this real life story about the time they survived modern day Titanic. Benji explains the process of writing the book was part of his therapy and recovery, which is definitely evident as you read his words.
Abandoned Ship sets the scene for how joyous their trip begain, explaining what it’s like to be on a cruise, the elements of grandeur, but also highlights the motel-style rooms and brutal hours of crew members (often 16 hours a day most days of the week). Humanizing the employees on the ship made it all the more heartwrenching when the captain and sailing crew abandoned the ship, leaving the cooks and waiters to step up and save the guests. One crew member helping keep people calm, was described as selflessly creating “that sense of calm not as a hiding place for herself but as a blanket to share with others.” Later someone says they understand Tagali, which was being spoken by most of the ship workers, who were shouting “I don’t know what I”m doing,” and”How does this thing work” as they tried to step up and fill the deck crew’s role and getting people onto lifeboats and safely off the sinking ship. It’s pretty easy your own imagination to fill in the horror as you relive the event with the writer.
Once we know they’ve survived the shipwreck, the sensational part of the story the media glommed onto, comes a less glamorous but still scary part of that didn’t get media attention. That their own embassies (Chinese and American) couldn’t be bothered to step up and provide assistance for passengers who had lost their passports and money, in favor of just leaving their citizens stranded in a foreign country, is pretty alarming. After all, isn’t the propaganda that we are supposed to take comfort visiting a city that has a United States Embassy, for the security and protection that embassy can provide in a time of crisis?
Emily and Benji’s anger is palpable at both the media capitalizing on their tragedy and the embassies for caring so little. It’s all the more terrifying when you imagine what it must have been like for passengers of the cruise ship who were of lesser means than these two; who didn’t have cash, or built in networks of 1,000+ people to help them find ways around Costa, trying to get home.
When the Embassy didn’t care, and the media was disinterested in the inefficacy and apathy these survivors met at Costa, and many of them at their own embassies, Benji decided he would write this story himself. And he did so capturing the intensity of the moments as they fought for their lives on the ships, and the exasperation and desperation as they fought their ways home. This memoir is a a page-turning, first hand account of a modern day Titanic, and the aftermath of dealing with such a tragedy. Definitely a worthwhile read!
In the opening pages of the book, Benji Smith includes a disclaimer stating that the events happened but that he has invented a lot of dialogue “in the interest of good storytelling.” After the James Frey “Million Little Pieces” fiasco, it does leave me wondering how much of this book is true and how much is imagined after the fact. Clearly, he and Emily experienced a traumatic event and many disappointments and feelings of abandonment afterwards, but I think that writing this novel so soon after the event has not left any room for including the life changes and growth that is shown by disaster survivors in other stories. In short, I didn’t find Benji Smith likeable as a person through the novel and by the time I got to the end, I didn’t find the “Bonus Chapter” funny (which is how he intended it, I presume?) just irritating and a bit egotistical.
The book is self-published and could have used a good proofreader/copy editor as evidenced by typos and a few grammatically misuses that were jarring to this reader.
While writing the book as a way of dealing with PTSD was good for him, perhaps Smith should have put more distance between the actual event and the publishing.
I had no expectations going into this book other than being hopeful that there would be a first hand account of what happened. While that part did not disappoint, the sections that followed once they were on dry land left much to be desired.
I do not wish to be inconsiderate of their plight and situation, it was just awful, but I’m not sure what Benji and Emily felt some of these organizations firmly entrenched in different cultures were going to do for them. In all actuality, the people not working from within organizations were the most helpful, and that’s generally how it is. People (generally) treat others like people when they aren’t responsible to a “boss” or it’s in their power to actually do something.
It was almost like two different people had written the book. The words and imagery used to tell of the event it self was vivid, engaging and colorful. In contrast, other than the anger and whining, there was little to connect to after the event. I I also felt it was repetitive in ways that just became annoying. How many times did we have to read the retelling of the same story when yo know what the outcome of their story being shared with the media will be? People want to hear the nitty-gritty details of personal triumph over traumatic events, not that they feel let down by their Embassy and they want to complain that people didn’t do what they expected.
To be fair, it seems that Benji used this as a way to heal his mind and soul after such a tragedy, but I think the point of “not finding justice, but meaning” was lost on him.