An Englishwoman running from her past finds herself out of her depth on a 1939 ocean voyage from England to Australia.
The opening tableau of Rhys’ novel flashes forward to its close: an elegant woman, handcuffed, clad in a green dress with matching hat and pumps and one of those fox stoles with a head, is escorted off a ship by police. Her identity and crime remain undisclosed until the end. Lily Shepherd, Rhys’ protagonist and sole narrator, is a former housemaid whose affair with the master’s son has driven her to enlist in a government program that recruits young women for domestic service in Australia. Upon embarking from Essex on the ocean liner Orontes, Lily is plunged into an ethnically and socially striated floating universe, competently evoked by Rhys. Sailing in tourist class, Lily has assigned dinner companions who include Edward Fletcher, newly recovered from tuberculosis, who is traveling to Australia for his heath, and his older sister, Helena. A less welcome fellow diner is George Price, a blustering bigot. Lily is immediately attracted to curly-haired, handsome Edward. She finds a confidante in Maria Katz, a Jewish woman who fled Nazi-annexed Austria and is anguished over the unknown fate of her parents, who stayed behind. First-class passengers Eliza and Max Campbell, charismatic aristocrats, often dragoon Lily and Edward into onboard and shoreside escapades involving copious alcohol consumption. But why are Eliza and Max slumming with the bourgeoisie in second class? On one such excursion, to the pyramids, Edward and Lily kiss, but for the ensuing weeks at sea he waxes alternately warm and distant. Lily is nonplussed, but her bafflement is required to guard the novel's main wellspring of suspense, which has little to do with the identities of the murderess or victim. The very naming of this issue would constitute a spoiler, which is a shame: dealing with it head-on would have made for a more complex and less coy narrative.
The most compelling mystery here lurks between the lines.