Set in 1939, not long before the outbreak of the second World War, ‘A Dangerous Crossing’ follows young Lily Shepherd as leaves her much loved family and a past she would rather forget behind her to sail towards a new life in Australia.
She is travelling on a cruise liner, the ‘Orontes’, thanks to an assisted passage scheme, paid for by the Government to encourage people to settle in Australia. Lily had been a domestic servant, and she had been told that when that when she reached Sydney she would have no trouble finding a good job, as good servants were in short supply and valued very highly indeed.
This story of Lily’s month long-voyage is a lovely period piece and a fascinating travelogue; threaded with mystery and intrigue.
She travels in tourist class with other young women who are travelling for similar reasons, under the watchful eye of a chaperone; but Lily finds herself mixing with a much wider social circle in the dining room. She forms a friendship the quiet and charming Edward Fletcher and his protective elder sister, Helena; and she is captivated by a rich, glamorous, hedonistic couple – Max and Eliza Campbell – who come down from first class because they feel unwelcome there.
At sea, with only brief stops on land along the way, the passengers have little idea what is happening back at home. They know that with Germany could be close; some hope for the best but many fear the worst.
There are Jewish refugees and a large group of Italians on board; some – and most vociferously, George – regard those people as the enemy. Lily befriends a young Jewish woman, who shares her fears for the family she had to leave behind, and tells Lily of some of the terrible things that are already happening in Europe.
As time passes secrets unravel and tensions grow,
Not everyone who sailed from England will survive the voyage.
I was hooked from the first page to the last.
The first chapter told me that someone had been arrested and led from the ship in handcuffs when it docked in Sydney, and I had to keep reading to find out why and to find out who it was, but I found many more reasons like that to keep turning the pages.
‘A Dangerous Crossing’ is a wonderful character study of people with very different backgrounds, who would not usually mix, but were drawn together in the close confines of the ship. It a self-contained world, where, for the five weeks of the voyage, the usual rules did not apply.
Rachel Rhys evokes the period, and a world on the brink of change, quite beautifully. Life aboard ship – the daily routine and social events – is so vividly drawn, and the accounts of excursions to places like Gibraltar, Naples, Egypt, Yemen and Ceylon felt so real that I really felt I was there, travelling right across the world.
I was travelling with people I knew, but people that I knew had secrets.
Lily was a wonderful companion, Eliza and Max were an extraordinary couple, and Edward and Helena were intriguing. As the voyage continued I learned more and more about them all; and I realised that they all had such depth and complexity. Some of that revelations made my heart lift and some of them made my heart fall. Some of them I foresaw, and some of them came as complete surprises.
The final twist, that led to the walk in handcuffs in the first chapter, was the most remarkable of all.
Rachel Rhys deployed he cast of characters very effectively, she gave her story many different aspects of her story, she caught the changing times beautifully, and she wove her plot very cleverly.
I felt so wonderfully close to it all.
I’d call this book commercial fiction done very well.
There were times when I would have liked a little more subtlety, and I thought that the epilogue was more elaborate than it needed to be; but the book as a whole works.