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Review: Dangerous Crossing, by Rachel Rhys
Atria, 2018. 351 pp. $26

In late July 1939, Lily Shepard sails from her native England to Australia, among other young women recruited for domestic service (and duly chaperoned). Like her half-dozen peers and, indeed, most everyone else on the Orontes, Lily’s escaping a crushing disappointment, or trying to. Only it seems that her past haunts her in new guises, whether it’s the same sort of unsuitable man to whom she’s drawn or increasingly complicated moral decisions that seem all too familiar. And though Lily doesn’t realize it, or prefers not to, the world is sliding rapidly toward war.

It’s hard to read this novel without recalling Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, which featured a similar collection of thwarted escapists butting heads against their shortcomings or one another en route to prewar Nazi Germany. But Dangerous Crossing has its own pleasures, chief among them the psychological suspense. A prologue, which jumps ahead to when the ship docks in Australia, reveals that a crime has been committed on board. After finishing the book, I understand why Rhys has done this, and it’s extremely clever, but Dangerous Crossing isn’t a mystery per se.

The narrative derives its considerable tension from Lily’s confused attempts to understand her fellow passengers’ behavior, especially that of a young man who seems attracted to her, yet inexplicably blows hot and cold. She’s particularly vulnerable, because, in her last domestic situation, the young man of the house nearly seduced her with false claims of love, only to abandon her and damage someone else. Also puzzling are the Campbells, two wealthy, spoiled libertines rumored to have a scandalous past. They’ve clearly offended their fellows in first class and force themselves on Lily’s circle a deck below. The Campbells treat her and her friends like playthings, but she’s fascinated, despite herself. Then there’s a Jewish woman who just managed to get out of Austria, but who hasn’t heard from her family and who’s being persecuted by an unidentified enemy on board — or is it, as the ship’s many anti-Semites suggest, her fantasies?

As these puzzles proliferate and deepen in complexity, conflicting social prejudices and mores emerge. Rhys excels here, portraying class divisions and various shades of racial bigotry and anti-Semitism, turning the Orontes into a microcosm of a hate-filled world pole-vaulting toward catastrophe. In these circumstances, a lesser writer would content herself with stereotypes, but Rhys takes the high road, peeling away layers of bitterness and jealousy to reveal the yearnings underneath. Lily, too, has her moral failures, though I wish Rhys had plumbed her nascent envy a little further.

Rhys sets her scene well, both in ports of call and aboard ship:

After dinner there is a palpable frisson in the air as the band sets up… Though she hasn’t had anything to drink, Lily nevertheless feels intoxicated. It’s a mixture of the music and the beautiful clothes, the silks and velvets and chiffons, the peacock greens and sapphire blues, the russets and magentas; of the different fragrances, so recently applied, that mingle in the heady air — musks and florals and citruses, the woody smell of the cigar smokers.… And, above all that, the awareness that they are here on this floating world, apart from all other worlds, bound all of them by the country they have come from and the one they are going to, and by all the thousands of miles of travel that lie in between.

Dangerous Crossing feels entirely comfortable in its portrayal of 1939, and yet it’s the author’s first historical novel, so kudos there. I wish, though, she hadn’t told her story mostly in the present tense, because the shifts in time are sometimes jarring. Beyond that, though, she’s so sure-handed that I wonder why she included the prologue. Did she fear that her depiction of the competitive shipboard atmosphere, intensified by the heat of the southern latitudes, would fail to hold the reader? Did she not trust her skill at creating suspense without revealing that a crime has taken place?

Read Dangerous Crossing and decide for yourself.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.