Shepherd leaves her family and her waitressing job behind
when she embarks on the ocean liner Orontes. She is one of
the young women who have had their passage paid in order to
swell the numbers of “lady helps” in Australia.
But her new job in service seems a world away as she mingles
with people she would never meet socially back home. It is
1939, and while everybody is drinking cocktails and dancing
at balls a war looms, and when the ship reaches Sydney, two
people will be dead.
This novel has been likened to the works of Agatha Christie
and Patricia Highsmith, but it is very much its own book.
I would hesitate to call it a “mystery,” and instead
would place it firmly in general historical fiction, as there
is so much more in here than crime. There is, in fact, no
detective work, but readers of a wide range of genres will
enjoy sheer good writing, excellent characterisation and tangible
descriptions. Ms Rhys is adept at describing the toxic, pressure
cooker world of a liner on a long voyage. As the heat increases
and the chance of war gets more likely, tempers fray, romances
are conducted and lives are changed. Lily makes for a believable
and ultimately rather sensible protagonist, seeing the world
of high (and middle class) society for the first time as a
participant. Like the other main characters, she has a secret
of her own, but whether it will save or destroy her you will
have to discover for yourself. The “mystery” here
consists of wondering who the murderer is, glimpsed at the
beginning, and what the various secrets can be. Interspersed
with this are the shore excursions, and here the author also
excels at describing hot, dusty markets, and wonders like
the pyramids. I couldn’t put it down, and although it
is not a quick read, I savored every word. Definitely one
of this year’s must-read novels.