When the officer returned to his position, the next three passengers were already aboard, and for the rest of his life, the pitiful tableau they formed was the first image that sprung to mind when he thought of the Titanic. The handsome young man in his evening dress, eyes haunted, one hand pressed protectively against his companion’s back. There was a girl hovering nervously behind them – a maid, by her cowed bearing and her black dress. And then there was a lady, swathed in a fur coat over a shimmering green gown, a vision of ruined elegance. She looked done in, her thick auburn hair cascading in a tangle over one shoulder, a dull burgundy gash blighting her check. Yet there was a nobility to her suffering. She was young, the officer realized, younger than she appeared at first. Too young to have learned that the world can inflict harsh blows on even the most charmed lives.
“Your name?” the officer asked, his manner markedly more respectful than had been toward the third-class girl.
“Mrs. Hiram Harper,” the beauty replied. The officer was surprised to hear the flat American tone; he’d assumed by the woman’s bearing that she was English.
“Charles Van Hausen,” the gentleman said.
So, not her husband, as the officer had assumed. He jotted down “and maid” after Mrs. Harper’s name, and nodded dismissively at the girl in black. Proper names were not required for servants. He directed the passengers to the first-class steward waiting to escort them further, then turned to see a young woman staring at him with disconcerting directness. Quite lovely, he couldn’t’ help but note, though her disheveled hair and white-cold skin gave her and eerie wildness that distracted somewhat from her beauty. She couldn’t’ be past her early twenties.
The officer asked her name, yet she kept staring, as if the question were beyond comprehension. She didn’t look like a foreigner; she was quite respectably dressed, though most likely second class rather than first.
The officer repeated the question. This time, he saw her struggle to respond. It must have been the shock. It left some people quite unable to speak.
“Charlotte Evers,” she managed at last. Her voice was more refined than her clothes. British, well bred. “Mrs. Reginald Evers.”
Then, to the officer’s astonishment, the woman began to cry.
Author Elizabeth Blackwell often says that before she started this novel, she spent quite some time wondering whether the world really needed another Titanic novel. Well, if the story is this, I’d say: definitely yes!
In its essence, On a Cold Dark Sea is a simple enough story. And it is indeed about the Titanic. It isn’t a story just set on the liner or a plot involved with the events of the sinking. That faithful night and what happened on Lifeboat 21 casts its shadow on the entire book and the lives of the characters. Facing those events finally unlock all the characters’ personalities.
What I find particularly fascinating is the structure of the story, which is what creates the meaning of the story. The basic idea is that what happened on Lifeboat 21 (and it is nothing spectacular in terms of storytelling) interrupts the course of the lives of all the people on that boat and pushes them in a different, unexpected direction, but also creates secrets that are buried with the memories of that night.
Instead of following the events in a linear way, the plot twists and turns around them, going up and down the timeline. This creates mystery but also meaning, because events are connected not by the neutral link of time, but by that of relations and causes and effects.
I really really liked it.
We follow the three main characters – Esme, an American wealthy woman; Charlotte, a British journalist who used to be a swindler; and Anna, a Swedish immigrant – basically from their childhood and it’s very easy to become attached to them as we see their expectations bloom up to the night of the sinking. They illustrate the diversity of the people who historically were on the Titanic and give the story a sense of universality. But they are also their own characters and we care about them and what happens to them.
I found Charlotte the most relatable, and maybe it’s also the author’s favourite. It’s true that an equal time is devote to all three women, but the story does start and end with Charlotte who’s also the one that gets the change in motion in the middle of the novel. She’s unconventional and spunky, truly a fantastic character.
A good read.
In post is part of the Thursday Quotables meme. If you want to discover more about this meme and maybe take part in it, head over to Bookshelf Fantasies