Today I have the pleasure of reviewing an ARC for the North American release of Rachel Rhys’ novel Dangerous Crossing. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, particularly fiction that focuses on WWII and it’s lead up, this is one is definitely one for you. Filled with mystery, romance, and genuine variety in the characters I simply couldn’t put this sucker down.
Title: Dangerous Crossing
Author: Rachel Rhys
Publisher: Atria Books
Expected Publication Date: January 9, 2018
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Themes: WWII, Class Stratified Society, Antisemitism, Impossible Romances, Based on a True Story
Features: Historical documents
My Rating: 4/ 5
The ship has been like a world within itself, a vast floating city outside of normal rules. But the longer the journey continues, the more confined it is starting to feel, deck upon deck, passenger upon passenger, all of them churning around each other without anywhere to go…
1939: Europe is on the brink of war when young Lily Shepherd boards an ocean liner in Essex, bound for Australia. She is ready to start anew, leaving behind the shadows in her past. The passage proves magical, complete with live music, cocktails, and fancy dress balls. With stops at exotic locations along the way—Naples, Cairo, Ceylon—the voyage shows Lily places she’d only ever dreamed of and enables her to make friends with those above her social station, people who would ordinarily never give her the time of day. She even allows herself to hope that a man she couldn’t possibly have a future with outside the cocoon of the ship might return her feelings.
But Lily soon realizes that she’s not the only one hiding secrets. Her newfound friends—the toxic wealthy couple Eliza and Max; Cambridge graduate Edward; Jewish refugee Maria; fascist George—are also running away from their pasts. As the glamour of the voyage fades, the stage is set for something sinister to occur. By the time the ship docks, two passengers are dead, war has been declared, and Lily’s life will be changed irrevocably.
I went into this novel expecting a murder mystery, but once it became clear that this was more of a character driven book than an action driven one, I was completely on board for the emotional rollercoaster ride. The opening passage detailing the arrest in Sydney was enough to get me hooked, and I was utterly thrilled when I was blind sided upon discovering who our arrestee was at the end. It’s not too often I don’t guess the guilty party, so this one totally takes the cake for surprise plot twists.
Lily was a wonderful narrator to follow, especially given her social standing and the rare opportunity she had to make connections on her journey. I really enjoyed how aware she was of her station within this class stratified society, and the open acknowledgement that she knew she could never carry out the same type of interactions once off the ship. Also, the fact that the event that she was running away from wasn’t revealed until right at the end really worked for me. I was constantly pushing through to find the next tidbit from her flashbacks, and constantly desired to know more about Robert and Mags. By the end I was entirely willing to forgive Lily’s relative meekness, and instead found myself lauding her strength and bravery despite it all.
I was surprised, however, to discover how much sympathy I had for both Eliza and Max. Sure, they are toxic, narcissistic, idiopaths who toy with the lives of people for their own amusement, but there was something about their story that was so tragic that I simply couldn’t hate them. Okay, maybe Max, but as much as I disliked Eliza for being so insipid at points I never really hated her. Perhaps it was her moments of genuine vulnerability with Lily that endeared her to me despite her many scandals, but it was refreshing to read a female character that was an honest villain, as well as honest about her needs and emotions. Bravo!
All of the other characters – Edward, George, Helena, Ida, and Maria – were incredibly well crafted as well. I enjoyed how bit by bit the motives behind everyone’s actions were revealed, and that once that final piece fell into place that there was this ‘aha’ moment where you finally get them. And, I was even more surprised to learn that despite this being a work of fiction, that all of the major characters were based off real people who sailed on the Orontes at the same time as the real Lilian Dent. And while the story came across as genuine and believable right from the get go, once I learned the inspiration behind it all I was entirely sold.
Finally, the fashion and period elements in this book were absolutely spot on! Everything from the dresses – whether to be corseted or not – to the swimming costumes had me waxing poetic about pictures of my grandparents at that age. And, I think it’s important to mention, that just as much detail was paid to apparel of the men as the women. I think I would have killed for Eliza’s evening gown from the ball on the last night, and maybe even the peach silk dress that she loaned Lily during the passage. Considering the role that clothing plays throughout the book, especially how much it can say about a person, I would kill to see this novel cast as a movie.
Would I recommend this book? Absolutely! It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it ended up being so much more. Perhaps its not the fastest pace book out there, but the depth and detail create a dream world in which it is easy to get swept away. I’d suggest this vibrant and enthralling read to just about anyone as it can’t be pigeon-holed into just one genre.
Many thanks to Rachel Rhys and Atria books for providing an advanced copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.