After an upsetting incident in London, when a stranger dies of a heart attack in his arms, Morgan meets up with a couple of friends with whom he has arranged to travel home. They have all booked passage with the White Star Line, which is partly owned by Morgan's famous uncle, and for which Morgan has been doing some work as a draughtsman. The friends are to sail home on the maiden voyage of White Star's new liner, The Titanic.
This was a fascinating story, and we follow Morgan on board where he mixes with the cream of society from both sides of the Atlantic. It's an interesting clique, and everybody seems to know everybody else in the rarified atmosphere of the 1st class quarters. I found myself interested in a very satisfying, almost gossipy way by the goings-on, although the novel was mainly serious in tone with just a few touches of the famous Bainbridge humour here and there.
There are lots of little puzzles throughout the book, most - but not all - of which are solved by the final page. Why does Morgan have troubling dreams about an old woman? Who is the myserious and charasmatic stranger on board and how did he get the scar on his lip? There is even a little romantic intrigue as Morgan becomes smitten with a girl who remains frustratingly out of reach. It's this kind of thing that makes the bulk of the book so much more than just a prelude to a disaster.
Inequality of class, with the lower classes represented mainly by the crew, was a major theme of the novel. I never felt as though I was being lectured though, and Bainbridge makes her point quite subtlely throughout most of the book. This culminates in the final scenes, when the disparity between first and third class access to lifeboats is impossible to ignore.
The reader of course knows what's coming, but I got so wrapped up in the intrigues of Morgan and his set that I almost forgot about it at times. The period of time between the ship striking the iceberg and its eventual sinking only took up quite a short section of the book, but I think the fact that we had got to know the characters so well gave these scenes even greater impact.
Of the three books I read for Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week I would put this second. I found it a much more relaxing read than Master Georgie, but Bainbridge does humour so very well that I felt its absence keenly after enjoying The Bottle Factory Outing so much. However, there's no doubt that she knows her stuff, and Bainbridge's thorough research, well-plotted story and beautifully-crafted prose make her a first class writer of historical fiction.