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.
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.