The Ocean Liner

Written by Marius Gabriel
Review by Jasmina Svenne

When American liner SS Manhattan sets sail for New York from war-torn Europe in 1939, it is crammed with refugees and returning Americans. Jewish cousins Masha and Rachel Morgenstern are fleeing the persecution that may have already overtaken their loved ones. Composer Igor Stravinsky, worn out by illness and bereavement, is not sure he wants to go at all, while philandering conductor Toscanini has defied the Fascist regime once too often, but feels lost without his long-suffering wife Carla. Meanwhile Rose Kennedy, wife of the US Ambassador to the UK, is striving to manage her large brood, while her husband’s career threatens to fall apart. This is partly due to his anti-war, pro-Hitler stance and partly because of the uninhibited behaviour of oldest daughter Rosemary, whose beauty and vivacity mask a secret. Then there is Thomas, teenage member of the Hitler Youth, heading for the World’s Fair and hiding a secret that could imperil his life. What none of them knows is that German U-boat U-113 is lurking in the Atlantic and that its fanatical captain will stop at nothing…

This is one of those rare things – an ensemble novel that actually works. Usually having so many protagonists (I haven’t listed them all) means that there are some flat characters or dull plotlines. Here the characters are all well delineated and it is possible to sympathise even with their flaws – Rachel’s spikiness, Toscanini’s philandering – which in less skilled hands could have reduced them to stereotypes. The one thing I question is the positioning of the dramatic climax. Although the “what happened next” chapters are well written and moving, some of the narrative drive is lost once the peril is past. Nonetheless, this is a novel worth reading as a microcosm of many of the issues connected with World War II.