Class boundaries disappear and secrets slip out on a long, hot journey from England to Australia in Rachel Rhys’ Dangerous Crossing.
London housemaid Lily Shepherd signs on for 2 years in Australia, taking advantage of the reduced fare, and hoping that time and distance will heal her. She’s in tourist class, a sort of midrange accommodation that was totally unknown to me. I guess I know most about glittery cocktail parties in First, and desperate conditions in steerage. Or, you know, new brides living in an aircraft carrier’s liftwells.
Everyone has their own reasons for making the journey, which is exactly the sort of premise I love in expat stories. Max and Eliza Campbell, at first seem like bored British aristocrats, unhappily married in a way that manifests in barbs over cocktails. Eliza imperiously demands that the tourist-class travelers make up the required number of card players, or tag along on excursions to keep them from being bored with each other. But of course, they’re not just off to Australia to keep themselves entertained, and there’s a reason they keep coming down from First to slum it with the tourist-class passengers.
Edward and his sister Helena are also escaping, although at first it seems like they’re just avoiding their overbearing parents and looking for an agreeable climate for recovering Edward. An Austrian-Jewish schoolteacher, Maria, is escaping a lot more literally, although during the journey, all the shipmates glance at the papers and reassure each other that although Herr Hitler looks a bit frightening, Neville Chamberlain won’t let them be drawn into war again.
The entire novel takes place on the boat, or on short dockside excursions on the journey from England to Australia, but there’s endless action on board. At the same time as our characters are on their personal journeys, the shipboard social classes represent the fragile alliances and ethnic prejudices of 1939 Europe. The drama of traveling to the other side of the world, right on the eve of WWII, for so many different reasons, keeps the pages turning.
This is recommended for fans of The Ship of Brides by Jojo Moyes, another story about escaping and restarting, set on a boat from Australia to England.
I first read Jojo Moyes’ The Ship of Brides in Beijing, in fact, I have a paperback copy with a 100RMB sticker on it, from the Wangfujing foreign language bookstore. I think I’ve probably read it 20 times since then.
The story is about four Australian war brides on their way to join their British husbands at the end of WWII. The British Navy sends them on a converted aircraft carrier, turning the ship’s storage rooms and liftwells into dorms for the young women. There’s an amazing amount of research into how the brides spent their days and the sheer logistics of transport, including clips from newspapers of the time, but it always feels like fiction. The systems of wartime rationing, postal delivery, and military hierarchy are intregrated smoothly into a story about relationships and change.
The story is told in third-person, but focuses alternately on four different brides, who are assigned to share a room on the journey. Avice has eloped with an officer, and her well-to-do family can overlook the rush if they’ll have a huge society wedding in London. Farm girl Maggie has lived with her husband Joe just long enough to be several months pregnant on the journey over. Jean, the youngest, is only a teenager as she sets off to meet her equally young husband, Stan, on the other side of the world. Frances was a nurse on Morotai during the war, and she’s very quiet about what she experienced there. Of course, all 600 women on the ship are married to British servicemen, but they each have quite different motivations and expectations. There are some male characters, too, although I tend to skim the men’s sections while intently reading the women’s experiences. Yeah, whatever, horrors of war, love of the sea, blah blah. It’s the women who are leaving everything familiar and safe, and setting off to join husbands they haven’t seen or spoken to in months. The whole book covers such a fascinating liminal space between their girlhood experiences in Australia, and their totally unknown lives, as wives in a foreign country.