Weeks prior to the outbreak of World War Two, Lily Shepherd travels onboard an ocean liner to Australia where she will take up a position as a domestic servant. As the voyage gets underway, the barriers between the classes begin to blur as Lily befriends a diverse group of characters who all have secrets of their own.
As Lily finds herself drawn into the hedonistic world of Max and Eliza Campbell, she is introduced to a world of luxury to which she will never truly belong but friendship with the Campbells will come with a heavy price as the couple like to play games.
Lily also befriends Edward and Helena Fletcher, upper-class siblings who seem to be down on their luck and hoping a warmer climate will improve Edward’s state of health. As Lily spends more time with them, she begins to develop romantic notions towards Edward but he seems more infatuated with the beautiful Eliza Campbell.
As the journey continues, tensions between the passengers increase as Jewish and Italian immigrants arrive onboard and Lily is horrified by the tales she hears from her new friend, Maria Katz, an Austrian Jew fleeing from the Nazis. Lily soon finds herself torn between her wealthier friends and her growing concern for the welfare of Maria whose is becoming increasingly fragile. By the time the ship docks in Australia, dark secrets will rise to the surface as the passengers reach breaking point and two passengers will pay the ultimate price.
A Dangerous Crossing is a fascinating account of how one group of passengers is affected by a six week voyage to Australia just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. As the ship departs from England, communications are strictly controlled by the captain who chooses not to reveal the truth about the brewing war to his passengers to avoid conflict between them.
Our main protagonist is Lily Shepherd, a young woman who is travelling to Australia on a government assisted passage to work as a domestic servant. Lily talks frequently about her desire to return to England after two years, but we know the war is going to scupper those plans. Lily is travelling with a group of women who have applied for the same scheme, however once these characters are introduced, they fade somewhat into the background until they are needed to drive the plot. The important one is Ida, an older embittered woman who becomes a thorn in Lily’s side and goes on to play a significant role later, however I never felt I really understood Ida’s motives.
All of the passengers have secrets which are gradually revealed as the voyage continues and the most colourful characters are Max and Eliza Campbell who seem to draw people to them like magnets. Although they are first-class passengers, Max and Eliza lead such a scandalous lifestyle, they are shunned by their own class and are forced to seek entertainment elsewhere. A beautiful American socialite, Eliza enjoys flirting, mainly to make her husband jealous, but Lily isn’t so pleased when she sets her sights on Edward Fletcher. Edward and his sister, Helena, have their own secrets though and Lily soon dismisses Edward’s lack of interest in her as being down to her working class background, however all is not as it seems.
Since the novel opens with a woman being arrested once the ship docks in Australia, we know something tragic happens on the journey and the chapters are a slow build up to the inevitable denouement. The plot is kept tight and the atmosphere on the ship is heightened by the heat and the political turmoil brewing in the background. In fact, the author is so successful at drawing out the claustrophobic nature of the journey, it came as much of a relief to me as the passengers when the ship finally arrived in Australia.
This is hard book to review because there are so many secrets waiting to be revealed and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Suffice to say, the mystery is an intriguing one but the massive twist at the end is rather spoiled by the author’s habit of signposting certain things. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate ploy but it would’ve been more satisfying if it had come out of nowhere.