Reviewed by Ian Lipke
‘…the steel blade took the full force…ending up buried in his chest up to the hilt.’ Tragedy strikes in Rachel Rhys’ novel, A Dangerous Crossing. It is 1939 and the Second World War is about to savage Europe. But this seems to be of little interest to the passengers on board the steamship Orontes, where passion has taken centre stage.
Among the travellers is bright-eyed Lilian who has left her secure job in England to travel to Australia as an ‘assisted migrant’. The author juxtaposes Lilian and her naïve innocence with a black-hearted passenger, whose joyless mood is pervasive. One fellow passenger is a rather confused soul, unable to cope with the complexity of social interaction. Devout Jews, committed Nazis and avowed racists complete the mix. But are they what they seem? The storyline reveals that appearances are misleading. Add to the brew a captain reluctant to carry out his duties, and a doctor whose mind is closed to ideas other than his own. All the passengers have some aspect of their lives best not revealed.
Lilian settles in and is soon hearing the stories they wish to share. She becomes friendly with Maria, a young Jewish woman. Maria’s Europe is one where Jews are raped or murdered while lawmakers look the other way. Even the apparent security of the ship does not allay her fear that someone will try to kill her. There is George Price who supports Hitler and expresses racist opinions. Lilian puzzles over Helene and Edward. Are they brother and sister? Husband and wife? Engaged? For much of the book, Lilian believes she loves Edward, but Rhys keeps this a mystery till the end.
Britain is soon left behind. Lilian’s past recedes with it. She settles into her new lifestyle and gets to know her close circle of acquaintances. But just when she thinks she knows these people, she finds she does not know them at all.
Lilian’s story is told in the style of Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey. There is no frantic dash from drama to drama. Instead, the storyline unfolds through narrative and description. It advances at a slow pace. Perhaps this is to reproduce the leisurely flow of life on board ship. Whatever the author’s reason, this reviewer found the pace distracting. The story drags at times when a more rapid flow of events might have been more stimulating. It is, after all, a time when world war was likely to break out at any moment. Surely this would have created an undercurrent of disquiet throughout the ship.
Secrets are released at a leisurely pace, often diverting into situations where a scene’s relevance is, at best, tangential. Max and Eliza Campbell are subjected to intense scrutiny but, as one chapter closes, are left to dangle on the hook. Rhys does not develop this line.
Audrey declares that she and Annie will look after Lily when they go ashore, which immediately prompts Ida to retort that Annie doesn’t look capable of looking after a goldfish and that Lily will be in much safer hands if Ida herself takes care of her. Ida has made no secret of her low opinion of Audrey’s new friend, who was late starting in paid work, having stayed at home to help take care of her younger siblings, and so has never progressed beyond kitchen maid (71).
The author seems besotted with appearance, particularly colour. ‘Eliza is in yellow today…[Her} eyes are the most curious colour, by turns navy and then appearing almost violet, like a taffeta gown that changes shade according to the light’ (67). Complexions are ‘chalky white’, or grey-tinged with violet shadows beneath the eyes. Eyelids are burnished orange. Rhys describes one passenger as being “thickset, with square, meaty hands and a caved nose that looks to have been broken several times” (27).
In some ways the colours loosely reflect the personalities of the passengers. Edward is a pale shade of lemon, Audrey a faded shade of some other undistinguished hue, perhaps pink or cream. One suspects that this is a deliberate authorial ploy to subsume the characters within the story, to force the reader to identify character or circumstance by colour as well as by deed. Rhys could have exploited other ways of developing characters.
Ida is an exception. Dress is not important to her. When Ida is being herself, (and she rarely adopts any other persona than her own) the reader is still not sure who she is. At any given time she may be involved in straight talking, or lying, or inference, or all at the same time. She is a cloudy character who could be a strong drawcard but isn’t. Maria appears as the clearest character of them all. The reader sees her as genuine. On the other hand, the book’s characters prefer to believe that she loves making a spectacle of herself by telling lies about being attacked.
I am uneasy about the title of the book. Travelling from the United Kingdom to Australia in 1939 is surely not a ‘crossing’. The English Channel might be accurately described thus. A voyage of thousands of miles is not. I query the word ‘dangerous’. I expected to find the sort of gruesome murders that Agatha Christie used to portray in her novels. Apart from one of the characters disappearing, ostensibly over the side, and another running on to a knife by accident, I saw very little danger in the voyage’s entirety. The disappearance shook Lily’s world but had little effect otherwise. The knife accident, happening in the midst of the group of passengers, was admittedly more impactful (336).
Early critiques have been positive in their judgment of this book. If you’re deeply into societal interactions in artificial communities such as ocean liners, this first novel will bring you satisfaction. As a reviewer I found the book unsatisfying. ‘Buy the book and make up your own mind’ is always a good course to follow.
By Rachel Rhys
Penguin Random House
RRP: $32.99; 368pp