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, wives 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 agreeableclimate 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.