Category: Fiction/Historical – Paperback: 224 pages – Publisher: Abacus (Hachette) – Source: Charity Shop
First Published: 1996
Orange Prize Longlisted 1997
Booker Prize Shortlisted 1996
Beryl Bainbridge takes on the sinking of the Titanic. The narrator, a 22-year-old named Morgan, brushes up against real-life victims such as John James Astor early in the voyage, while falling in love with the beautiful and unobtainable Wallis Ellery. The deadly maiden voyage of the world’s largest ocean liner becomes a journey of self-discovery in this portentous, postmodern work, short-listed for the 1996 Booker Prize.
A Sample Quote: ‘But you reckon we’ll reach New York Tuesday?’ pressed Ginsberg, and the purser replied, ‘Tuesday night, yes. Barring accidents,’ at which they both laughed.
As my second read of the current Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week I tackled Every Man For Himself which is Bainbridge’s version of the Titanic disaster. I previously tried and disliked this book a lot, but that was almost a decade ago and I have read more since then. :)
This time, after reading and enjoying The Dressmaker, I had more of an idea of what framework and style I was likely to find in a Bainbridge novel.
Like The Dressmaker, the book starts with a prologue that fits into the end of the story. It describes the narrator’s moment of trying to jump off the ship, but doesn’t tell you whether he or anyone else survives. After that we join our narrator, Morgan, on his very eventful day before boarding the Titanic and then spend four days in his company, knowing that the ship and iceberg are on a fatal collision course.
Morgan is a young man who knows his place in the world but isn’t sure what to do with it. Originally an orphan he has been rescued from a life of obscure poverty because he is a relation of J P Morgan and given money, the chance at a career and an entrance into the smart set’s social scene wherever he goes in the world. He has been working with Thomas Andrews, designer of the Titanic, and is about to put those newly learnt skills to the test but he is also on speaking terms with the millionaires and socialites who make up Titanic‘s first class. He’s in love with Wallis, a high society girl who he will shortly discover is not so ice maiden-like as his original assessment of her:
‘Dancing with her was like holding cut glass; Hopper got it about right when he complained she made him feel he left finger marks.’
And there is of course the rest of first class to gossip about, an amazing and talented singer from third class who catches the attention of Morgan and another first class man when she attempts suicide and all the staff who are working to make the ship run like clockwork. It should be a fabulous book full of careful dialogue, tragic comedy and pathos.
Unfortunately I did not find it so. I’ve been trying to work out why the book falls flat for me and I think it comes down to tension and temperature.
Bainbridge is just too cold a writer to make me feel any connection to these characters. I am not sure if this is deliberate and I am supposed to feel that in some ways the loss of the first class was A Good Thing, that this glittering world that opens up and welcomes you only if you have the money or the right name deserves the end it comes to. I just know that I read this and didn’t want the Morgans of the world to prosper and continue. Is it hideous that I wanted the ship to go down and only the third class passengers to survive at the end of the book? Perhaps if the relationships on board had seemed warmer than the cold, black depths beneath the ship I’d have felt differently.
The other problem I have with the book is far bigger. The tension possible in this story is completely rejected in favour of foreshadowing. I like foreshadowing as a general rule but here it destroyed the book for me as it dominated everything.
Within the first fifty or so pages Morgan had witnessed the fire in the coal store, the coal stokers working fifteen hour shifts, betting on the speed of the ship and arrival times, met the Captain, the owner of the White Star Line, the designer of the ship and every famous passenger on board, looked at the main staff passage called Scotland Road, seen a telegraph being received about ice… It goes on. Morgan is the perfect character for showing us around the ship but he is used a Cassandra-like info dump of basic trivia we need to know about Titanic to prove Bainbridge did her homework. It’s tiresome for anyone who’s read anything about the ship or the night she sank and unnecessary for those who haven’t.
Which leads me to my final point, why set it on Titanic at all?
Setting it on board a known ship made the novel feel straight-jacketed into a timeline that Bainbridge didn’t really explore. I wanted to see more of this world in microcosm. I wanted more knowledge of what happened to the other characters after the ship went down. I wanted more knowledge of what else was going on amongst the rest of the passengers. I wanted to care. Honestly though, after the foreshadowing and random splurges of Titanic trivia and 200 pages of being claustrophobically limited as a reader to following this small circle of very unlikeable people around… I finished this book with a real feeling of having missed the point of the book somewhere along the way and still hoping the water around Bainbridge’s version of Titanic was full of sharks with big, pointy teeth.
Ironically I’d urge you to avoid this unemotional fictional account and grab a copy of the non-fiction account offered in A Night To Remember by Walter Lord instead. Based on real testimony from those who survived it’s far more interesting and much more moving than this.