Escaping the past…
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Days after the outbreak of WW2, a ship arrives in Australia, and a passenger in handcuffs is escorted off by the police. A local reporter tries to snatch an interview, to find out if the rumour is true that someone aboard the ship was killed…
After this great prologue that hints at much but tells us nothing that will spoil the story, we are whisked back to the beginning of the voyage. Lily Shepherd has left her home in England to go to work in Australia as a domestic servant. She’s trying to escape from the memory of something bad that happened, though at first the reader doesn’t know what this is, other than that it involved a man she had been in love with. She is on an assisted passage organised by the Church of England along with six other young women, all chaperoned by an older woman employed by the Church.
Lily meets the two girls with whom she’ll be sharing a cabin, and then later is introduced to the other passengers who have been placed at the same table with her in the dining room for the duration of the voyage. They’re a varied group, all of different classes and backgrounds – people whose paths wouldn’t cross socially in the normal course of things. But thrust into the sudden intimacy of having to live and eat together, barriers break down and unlikely friendships are quickly formed. Isolated from both past and future in this bubble, Lily soon finds that life on board becomes all-consuming, and begins to forget that when they arrive at journey’s end, all the passengers will revert to their own class and concerns, and that, as a domestic servant, she will be beneath the notice of most of them.
There is a young man at Lily’s table to whom she quickly becomes attracted – Edward, who is going to Australia for the sake of his health, having recently recovered from TB. His sister, Helena, is going with him and Lily is soon on friendly terms with them both, and has reason to think that her attraction to Edward is mutual. But their quiet life in tourist class is disrupted by the arrival of a glamorous couple from the first class deck, Max and Eliza, who promptly suck Lily and her new friends into their little circle. There is an air of scandal about Max and Eliza, though the gossip about them is vague, but it’s soon obvious that Edward has become infatuated. And while Eliza flirts with Edward, Max begins to show attention to Lily…
Rachel Rhys also writes psychological thrillers as Tammy Cohen, and I’ve had a mixed reaction to her in the past, partly because of my weariness with that genre. I much prefer her in this incarnation – although there is a crime here, this is more historical fiction in style. Her writing and characterisation are excellent, and she brings the claustrophobic atmosphere of forced intimacy aboard the ship brilliantly to life. When the voyage begins, the spectre of war is hanging over Europe but there is still hope that Germany might pull back from the brink. Rhys works this uncertainty through the plot, with some eager for war and some running from it. There are Jewish passengers aboard, fleeing from their homes to escape Nazi persecution, and we see the various reactions to them from sympathy to outright anti-Semitism.
But the main story is personal rather than political, as Lily gradually discovers that she’s not the only passenger who is trying to leave the past behind. The story is told in the third person, but as secrets are revealed, we see it all from Lily’s rather naive perspective. She is a level-headed, intelligent young woman though from a fairly sheltered background, and Rhys manages the tricky task of making her likeable and empathetic, while allowing the reader to see her flaws and weaknesses. The various on-board relationships take on an intensity in the confined setting, and soon little resentments become magnified until these sudden friendships begin to crack under the strain. Truthfully, I’d kinda guessed the big secret fairly early on but it didn’t matter – Rhys still managed to create a real atmosphere of tension and apprehension as she led the way to the shocking climax.
For all of us in book blog world, the book has another special treat. One of the characters is called after our very own Cleo, who bid for and won this honour in a charity auction – check out her post on it. Fictional Cleo did make me chuckle since I couldn’t help imagining the real Cleo in the character. It would have been worth reading it for that reason alone, and I freely admit that’s why I got the book. But I’m glad I did – it’s an excellent book with strong characterisation, a great sense of place and time, an intriguing plot and a dramatic but credible denouement. I’ll be looking out for more from Rachel Rhys in the future.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld via Amazon Vine.