I took a chance on this book when I came across it in my local Oxfam. The story takes place between July and September in 1939, with the impending war becoming an increasingly antagonistic background for the characters. A Dangerous Crossing (2017) opens in an intriguing way, with a woman in green being led off a ship, which has just arrived in Sydney, in handcuffs by the police. We know no more and the story then goes back to the start of the ship’s journey. Due to a government/church scheme young women, such as our protagonist Lily Shepherd, are able to immigrate to Australia, with a view to working in service when they arrive. From the very beginning we are unsure about Lily, who seems to have left some troubling events behind her in England. Clues litter the early chapters and that particular mystery is quite easily solved.
In many ways Lily reminds me of the maids out of the works of Agatha Christie, though more educated I think. She is quite naïve and soon out of her depth with several of the young men, from more affluent backgrounds, on the boat. In effect this story charts her interactions with the various passengers, some of whom make sensible companions, such as a Jewish refugee named Maria Katz, whilst others such as Max and Eliza Campbell are decidedly unwise ones. These two would fit in very comfortably with the crowd found in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1922) and one character wisely foretells that damaged people can often be dangerous ones as well.
So whilst this description might sound quite intriguing, I am afraid that this is not going to be a positive review. Page after page you read seeing Lily and the other passengers get intensely wrapped up in each other, yet nothing really happens. This is a plot type which requires a much more concise page count to be truly effective. This story is definitely mis-categorised as a mystery novel, despite being based on true events. In fact the few pages of documents at the end of the story were more interesting than the fictionalisation and in some ways I think Rhys’ handling of the material minimalizes the much more interesting and mystery making element of the true events. Crimes occur at the end of the novel, but for well over 300 pages you are kept waiting for them. The bulk of the novel examines the events leading up to the crimes, but unfortunately for me at any rate this examination of events was deadly dull, despite the dust jacket snippet reviews promising lots of intrigue, as well as a gripping read. The small pockets of mystery are quite easy to untangle and decipher and the ending, where we return to the handcuffed woman in green was rather disappointing and on the whole this was quite a de-energising read. Part of this may have been due to the realistic portrayal of 1930s attitudes towards Hitler and Jews. Whilst I appreciate the need for realism and verisimilitude, it did get rather draining over the large amount of the pages this story is comprised of. So whilst the real life events were perhaps ripe for being written about, I think the drama and real human interest of it has partially been lost in the retelling.