A Dangerous Crossing, by Rachel Rhys, is set on a luxury passenger liner travelling from Tilbury, England to Sydney, Australia in the five weeks leading up to Britain entering the Second World War in September 1939. The story is told from the point of view of twenty-five year old Lily, a waitress and former domestic servent who, along with several other young women, has gained a government assisted passage aimed at providing the wealthy down under with the types of servants they desire.
Lily is a pretty and straightforward working class girl but she harbours painful memories of heartache that she wishes to leave behind. As she befriends the strangers with whom she is to share the crossing she comes to realise that they too have secrets and that, despite their enforced proximity, the discriminatory judgements of fellow passengers can be as insidious here as on dry land. The treatment of the Jewish travellers was particularly painful to read.
There is disquiet when a couple from first class choose Lily and her new tourist class acquaintances as their companions for the voyage. This leads to entanglements that she struggles to deal with. We have come a long way in terms of behaviours wider society will accept.
Lily had to leave school at fourteen in order to help support her family and this journey offers her a chance to enjoy not just the exotic locations they visit en route but also an ease and lifestyle alien to her experience. What she is unprepared for is the intensity of both the relationships and resentments that form, and the inability to step back from her fellow passengers given their incarceration onboard a vessel at sea.
The writing is engaging and the characters drawn from a variety of walks in life. There is a carefully constructed build up to the denouement yet, although neatly done, this left me dissatisfied. I was more upset by Lily’s treatment of Maria than about the outcomes for her cohort of damaged and self-absorbed bright young friends. The time period is well evoked with its prejudices and casual entitlement. What I struggled to conjure was the warmth of empathy. I wished there to be someone willing to take a stand, even though the reluctance to act, given personal circumstances, was understandable.
I suspect that my lack of satisfaction with this book may be down to the expectations I had formed based on other early reader’s more positive reactions. I desired more depth, a challenge to convention. The tale has been well received by many but wasn’t for me.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.