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Novel set in 1939 on the High Seas

21st November 2017

Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys, novel set in 1939 on the high seas – a cruise liner travelling from London to Australia.

I have never fancied the idea of a cruise – all those different people compelled into forced intimacy for the duration of the journey – and this novel certainly did nothing to persuade me otherwise. In Dangerous Crossing, Rachel Rhys, alter ego of Tammy Cohen, an established thriller writer, makes her debut into historical fiction and a good job she makes of it too.

Novel set in 1939 on the High Seas

Rhys tells us that this novel was inspired by the real-life story of a young girl who made the journey between London and Sydney with the help of the assisted passage scheme, which enabled working class girls to emigrate to work as domestic servants in Australia. Lily is running from some dark events in her past that are only gradually revealed as the novel progresses, but she soon discovers that she is not the only passenger on board who has secrets to hide. Lily is in tourist class with other young women who are also destined for domestic service, but on board the liner, the usual social rules don’t apply and she makes friends with a charming brother and sister, Edward and Helena Fletcher, and soon falls for the gentle Edward. More reluctantly, she often finds herself in the company of upper class and dangerous Max and Eliza Campbell, whose glittering appearance hides their unsavoury past. Lily also befriends Maria Katz, a Jewish woman fleeing from Nazi-annexed Austria and seeks to avoid the gruesome George Price, a fascist and bully, who unfortunately takes a fancy to Lily. With such a potent mix of people unpleasant things occur during the voyage and by the time the Orontes docks in Sydney two passengers have died and the world is at war.

Rhys’ real skill here is in creating a vivid and extremely uncomfortable atmosphere. We see life on the liner through Lily’s eyes and share her growing feeling of unease, as she gradually discovers some of the hidden facts about her co-passengers. Rhys, by setting the story in 1939, also manufactures a real sense of doom. Dangerous Crossing begins with an arrest of an unnamed woman for an unspecified crime during the voyage and the story leads us back to that point, but be prepared for a really clever twist in the tale. Isn’t it brilliant when you genuinely don’t see something coming?

Rhys manages to convey the constraints and potential threats a journey like this must have proved for a girl of Lily’s class; she is quite vulnerable and feels trapped and hunted on the claustrophobic liner, but also exposed to dangers and difficulties when the liner docks and the passengers disembark to visit such places as Aden and Egypt. This is not always a comfortable read – the reader can almost feel the rolling of the ship and the subsequent seasickness – but it is a cracking page-turner. Well worth the feelings of discomfort.

Ellen for theTripFiction Team

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