“On a boat like this … everyone is running away from something.” (p. 65)
Miserably, I have been in a bit of a reading slump for most of the year. Not the kind of slump where I’ve been unable to read for extended periods; the kind where I’m ploughing on but very few books are truly engaging me. I have a feeling that my tastes have changed a little of late and that my TBR pile needs to be updated to reflect this. Something I shall investigate further …
Anyway, as soon I read a brief synopsis of A Dangerous Crossing I knew it would be The One. The One to shed some (albeit) temporary light on my currently rather dingy reading life.
And I wasn’t wrong, even though it turned out that this wasn’t quite the book I was expecting.
A Dangerous Crossing is billed as a mystery novel, as a cross between Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith. Whilst I can see some similarities to the latter, any comparison to Christie is terribly misleading. I think it’s a marketing ploy to hook readers – and I can’t deny that it worked because it certainly reeled me in. But it could backfire terribly with readers expecting a Golden Age-style mystery and becoming disengaged with this rich piece of fiction.
A Dangerous Crossing is less a mystery than it is a stunning work of historical fiction. It opens in the summer of 1939 and follows former maid and waitress Lily Shepherd on her five-week journey across the ocean to a new life – albeit one still involving domestic servitude – in Australia.
The novel crackles with tension. It opens with Lily’s ship, the Orontes, docking in Australia. A woman is led off the ship, under arrest. We thus begin our journey with Lily knowing that, by the time she arrives at her destination, two people will have died on board the ship and Europe will be at war.
So there is a mystery here: who is the woman in the fox fur stole who we see under arrest in the Prologue? Most of the women we encounter throughout the novel wear said stole at some point so there is an intense kind of a Pass the Parcel going on, particularly in the latter stages. Whose shoulders will the stole be draped around when the ‘music’ stops? The waiting is tense and the answer doesn’t disappoint …
But the mystery isn’t the central focus. What Rachel Rhys does centre the novel around, and skilfully evokes, is the idea of the ship as a liminal space. The characters find themselves between their old lives and their new beginnings, neither the people they were back home or yet the people they will become. Moreover, the whole world is suspended between peace and war:
All over the ship there is the strangest sense of being in limbo between what is real and what isn’t, between the departure and the arrival, between the threat of war and whatever comes next. (p. 320)
More gripping than the underlying mystery are Lily’s relationships with her fellow passengers: the Jewish refugee Maria, the fascist George Price, the scandalous upper class American couple Max and Eliza Campbell and the middle class brother and sister Helena and Edward Fletcher, who becomes Lily’s love interest.
Lily quickly realises that, on board the ship, the class boundaries that rigidly governed her life back home have been broken down as all society merges as one on the Orontes:
Such a blurring of lines here – the guests dancing with the staff. But then again, is it any more strange than her being here, with the sort of people to whom she used to serve tea, whose houses she once cleaned. (p. 131)
Clear-eyed and level-headed, Lily realises that this situation, this brief sip of a life of luxury, will be temporary: “she will go back to her world and they will go back to theirs and life will be once again divided into its correct boxes” (p. 315).
But what the novel seems to ask is ‘does this necessarily have to be the case?’ Could these social boundaries be permanently surmounted once the passengers reach their destination and build their lives anew? Do they have to once again be divided into ‘master’ and ‘servant’? Doe sthe war really have to make them ‘ally’ and ‘enemy’? In short, do these “correct boxes” have to be a part of this new existence or could the characters start again without them? It is this – not ‘who is the lady in the fox fur stole?’ – that is the central question in A Dangerous Crossing.
This is a beautifully written and evocative novel. It is by turns tense and tender and always wonderfully atmospheric, as we follow Lily to Australia via Gibraltar and Egypt. And because it has a clear message about unity and understanding those we perceive as ‘different’ to us, A Dangerous Crossing seems highly relevant to the times too.