While doing research for another book Martina Devlin stumbled upon the passenger list for the Titanic, which sunk in 1912. She spied a familiar name – Tom O'Brien from Bonavie, Co. Limerick - who turned out to be her great-great uncle.
It emerged he was eloping with his pregnant girlfriend, Hannah, to start a new life in Chicago. Hannah survived, and this book – Devlin's sixth - gives a fictualised account of how she, and her five shipmates in her lifeboat, fared in New York post Titanic.
The book opens one year after the sinking with a brief chapter detailing their reunion. So much has happened, so much water under the bridge for the unlikely bunch of survivors that met on that fateful night – their futures thrown off course forever.
The tough Irish girl Bridie Ryan, on the run from her past, takes Hannah under her wing from the start. The beautiful Nancy Armstrong, three months pregnant, is distraught that her wealthy older husband drowned, with her socially ambitious mother, Violet, not helping in the aftermath. The mysterious Louis Stubel, who falls for Nancy as soon as he sees her, enters their lives and causes quite a stir.
There's the decent US Cavalry officer Major Richmond Hudson, who succumbs to the psychic world in an effort to find meaning in why he should have survived, and the prudent classics teacher Edmund Newton, who definitely needs to take a chance on life and stop analysing everything so much.
Up to page one hundred we are out at sea - the actual sinking of the ship – it took three hours to succumb to the sea after colliding with an iceberg - the awful waiting around in lifeboats, the harrowing shrieks of those not lucky enough to get into one and the eventual arrival of the rescue ship.
It's a chilling account – all the more so because the bedrock of this tale is fact and we are left in no doubt that the real tragedy is that most people could have survived if there had been enough lifeboats.
However, only 705 (more recent records say 712) out of 2223 people survived the icy waters – Devlin's description of which will make you shiver. In the days after the rescue while the passengers are transported to New York all the talk is of what went wrong. Although, with personal grief running high, not everyone is caught up with the ice warning that was ignored, speed levels kept high, false assurances given by officers and luxury given more consideration over safety.
Martina Devlin gives her characters a realistic nuance. Although all are inherently good people, self-interest shines through in them.
My favorite character is Bridie. She is determined not to be a victim and refuses to indulge in self-pity, though she has suffered a horrific incident prior to taking her trip. She certainly wants to be there for the pregnant Hannah – but she also wants the life that she had promised herself. She knows her looks won't last forever so she has to get around to getting herself into a better situation and fast. However, it's a tough battle and she is frustrated at the meagre life that is offered to her when she finally gets to New York.
This must have been the experience of many Irish emigrants to the States at the time and Martina Devlin captures that disappointment – many must have asked themselves why they bothered.
This novel evokes the physical devastation the sinking of this lavish, 'unsinkable' ship caused, and the long reaching human consequences for generations to come. The eventful year for the survivors that follows in New York is gripping and heartbreaking in equal measure. This is a wonderful novel you can certainly sink into.