If last year's news reports of COVID- contaminated cruise ships stranded offshore for weeks didn't put you off cruises forever, then surely Chaney Kwak's memoir, "The Passenger," will.
That wasn't exactly Kwak's intention. A freelance travel writer for the New York Times and other publications, in March 2019 Kwak was assigned to take a Viking cruise to Norway to see the northern lights.
At first, everything went as expected. "Each day, the ship dropped anchor at a new port and unleashed all 915 passengers onto snow-packed streets and into shops brimming with handknit sweaters."
But a week into the journey, the weather changed. Horizontal rain and strong winds intensified into a bomb cyclone. The huge cruise ship began to pitch. "The ship leans, as if in slo-mo," Kwak writes. "It should snap back and right itself. I wait. And wait. But we keep falling."
The Viking Sky did not capsize. But all four engines lost power and the electricity cut out. An attempt to drop anchor was unsuccessful. The huge ship drifted freely along the treacherous Norwegian coast, rocked by 90 mph winds and washed by 60-foot waves.
The passengers were evacuated to the atrium, a large room in the middle of the ship. It didn't feel much safer there; dishes slid off tables; people screamed. Heavy planters slid around "like Ouija pieces," and furnishings "that were once bolted down were gliding about like ghosts."
In this short memoir, Kwak does a lot of things, and he does them all well. He writes a harrowing ticktock of his experience. He augments this with skillful reportage to explain what was going on beyond that atrium. He contrasts the lives of the wealthy white passengers with those of the crew members, many from the Philippines and Eastern Europe. And he reconsiders his life.
As waves wash over the side and passengers curl into balls — and as the crew continues to serve them buffet dinners and clean up after them — Kwak takes stock.
A decade into his career, travel writing was getting tedious. ("I used to put up with all that hassle for the sheer joy of seeing the world. These days, assignments felt … more like procrastination before I'd start my real grown-up life.")
He considers his relationship with his Korean parents — his stoic mother's battle with cancer, his father's traumatic experience fleeing Japan by boat after the war.
And he thinks about his 16-year relationship with his partner, Hannes, and how it has lost not just its zest but its fun. "Have I been too afraid of heartbreak to actually live?" he wonders. "And has that fear colored every choice I've made?"
Kwak is a journalist, and during the disaster he takes notes prodigiously — mostly for something to do. "I don't want to hawk these tidbits to the tabloids," he writes. Still, "I begin to feel that what I'm witnessing tonight might lead to a story worth telling. Maybe this story could heal me someday."
His story is definitely worth telling, both as a gripping adventure tale and as a solemn reminder not to wait until we might be dying to think hard about life.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's senior editor for books. @StribBooks
By: Chaney Kwak.
Publisher: Godine, 160 pages, $18.95.