Anybody who’s read my other book reviews will know I’m a sucker for a historical fiction novel with a very strong, clear basis in real life events, so when I won a copy of Dangerous Women I was over the moon. The promise of a fact-based novel over-laid with an entirely fictional whodunnit murder mystery enticed me.
‘A fine story of suspense, sisterhood and society, reflecting the harshness of women’s lives and their desperation to survive in a world that has scant regard for their wellbeing.‘
what it says on the cover …
The Rajah sails for Australia.
On board are 180 women convicted of petty crimes.
Daughters, sisters, mothers – they’ll never see home or family again. Despised and damned, they have only one another.
Until the murder.
As the fearful hunt for a killer begins, everyone on board is a suspect.
Based on a real-life voyage, Dangerous Women is a tale of confinement, hope, and the terrible things we do to survive.
PUBLISHED: 4th March 2021
SHELF: historical fiction | mystery | suspense
AUTHOR: Hope Adams
PUBLISHER: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
FORMATS: Hardback | Paperback | Kindle
‘You have, every one of you, been given a chance. It will seem to you now as if you’re leaving behind your home, and your loved ones, and all that you’ve known. You’ll be travelling very far from England, some of you for many years. What lies ahead of you on this voyage may make you fearful. You may regard this sentence of transportation as a grievous penance, but consider this too. The Rajah is also a vessel to take you away from your past lives, the tribulations and trials you may have suffered, whether from your own fault or because of your circumstances.’
my review …
Set in 1841, this book draws upon the real passenger list of one particular crossing of the Rajah as it sets sail from London to Tasmania. 180 women were abroad this ship, along with 10 children; children allowed to travel with their mothers as they had no living family to take care of them in the UK. The women were all convicts, jailed for petty crimes, who were being transported to the other side of the world to see out their sentences. The intent was for the women to rehabilitate there, after which they would be free to return home to the UK if they wished. Also aboard were Kezia Hayter who would serve as matron to the women, the master of the ship Captain Charles Ferguson, the ship’s surgeon James Donovan, and Rev. Ronald Davies who was returning to his antipodean homeland.
The author has drawn upon many well-documented resources to bring the awful conditions of these transported women to life. The crowded lower deck where they sleep on hard beds, eat meagre rations, and live on top of one another. The short periods of the day when they are allowed to walk on the main deck for fresh air and sunlight. The taunting lecherous cat-calls and flagrant groping by many of the ship’s crew.
Whilst enlightening and horrifying, these facts are always woven smoothly into the narrative; never once straying into ‘lecture’ territory. This is an important feature for me, especially in a novel when there is such an abundance of history to draw upon … the author has struck a fine balance in her writing, and I found myself well able to imagine the daily lives of these women. In the acknowledgements, the author describes how a visit to the V&A inspired the writing of this book, and goes on to detail the varied written and online resources that provide the factual framework. These resources also include – most enticingly – the logs made during that journey by the ship’s captain and surgeon, as well as the ship’s passenger log.
The murder-mystery plot of this book is where the author steps away from the factual to bring an additional layer of tension and suspense to the story. In truth, all the women aboard the ship have been convicted for petty crimes such as theft, soliciting, opium possession and vagrancy – crimes that for many of the women were purely a survival necessity. By introducing a fictitious young woman sentenced to be hanged for murder to the passenger manifest, the author invites the reader into a classic, locked-room murder mystery puzzle. This particular story thread becomes the central theme for the book, with the crime itself taking place in the opening pages, and it’s not until the very late chapters that the murder is unmasked. There are twists and misdirections throughout the chapters that kept me guessing, albeit they unfold at a very gentle pace.
The victim of the attack is a seemingly popular young woman called Hattie, who’s aboard the ship with her young son Bertie. Her monologue account of this moment is the opening chapter for the book, but it’s not the last time we hear from her, as the book’s chapters reveal the preceding weeks in a dual timeline.
Hattie is a member of a group of eighteen women selected by Kezia Hayter for their needlework skills. Kezia is aboard the ship to act as a matron to the women, and has been granted free passage on the understanding she works with the women to ‘improve’ them and care for them. She is very much the outsider on the ship, socially and morally distant from the women, and perceived to be beneath the intellect of the men. Her existence does at times seem rather lonely, but she’s been written with a fortitude and intellect that I found myself admiring. She’s a woman ahead of her time, and her beliefs quite frequently bring her and the sternly pious Rev. Davies into conflict.
Kezia’s needlework group are working on a patchwork coverlet to mark the journey. This project is entirely of Kezia’s own making, one she’s been planning for many months. She hopes it will instil good discipline in the women, as well as providing them with superior skills that they can benefit from in their new lives. This part of the book is entirely true; in fact it was during that visit to the V&A I mentioned earlier, where the author was lucky enough to see the actual quilt on display. But stepping back into the fictional world, seven of the women in this group were on the deck at the time of the attack on Hattie, triggering rumour, upset and suspicion throughout the women.
The chapters of Dangerous Women are narrated by three main characters: Kezia, Hattie, and Clara, and it’s through their eyes that we follow the progress of the patchwork, the lives of the women, and the events leading up to, and in the aftermath of the stabbing. Little by little, and perhaps a little too slowly for my personal liking, the truth behind the attack is revealed. With some chapters set in April 1841, and others in July 1841, I was grateful for the clear headings letting me know whereabouts I was. However, there were quite a few instances of repetition, where this parallel timeline seems to give rise to the actions, thoughts or behaviours of some characters being described on two or more occasions.
Dangerous Women is a book of two parts. On the one hand there’s the historical facts of the ship’s crossing, the conditions, the lives of the women, and the making of the patchwork coverlet. On the other hand there’s the fictional attack and the subsequent investigation. The murder-mystery thread is the dominant story, and whilst I concede this element brings an unexpected twist and a dramatic culmination, the investigation that takes up the main body of the book lacked the pace and suspense I was hoping for. In some ways, I felt this story line stifled the opportunity for some of the factual aspects to really shine.
However, I found the author’s emotional content at the start of the book, and again at the end, to be the most profound. The fear and duress of the women as they boarded the ship was written well; the alien environment aboard the ship, the preference for the certainty of a jail cell over the unknown they were heading in to, the desolation at leaving behind family and children – it all struck home with an immediacy and clarity that caught my interest. When the ship finally reaches its destination in Hobart the women are suddenly aware of how far they’ve come, not just in miles but in also in their characters. The boat they feared has become their new familiar safety, and now it’s the land that holds both promise and anxiety of the unknown. The sentiments of this final chapter were very touching, genuine and affecting.
This is a book that will appeal to historical fiction fans, who enjoy a gentle, unhurried plot and a large cast of characters who own the narrative and control the pace.
my rating …
Thank you to the very lovely Sue @brownflopsy for this copy of Dangerous Women. Sue absolutely loved this book, and you can read her review HERE.
Hope Adams was born in Jerusalem and spent her early childhood in many different countries, such as Nigeria and British North Borneo. She went to Roedean School in Brighton, and from there to St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She now lives near Cambridge. She also writes books for children and adults as Adèle Geras.
Dangerous Women was inspired by her visit to the 2009 Quilts exhibition at the V&A in London, during which the Rajah quilt was on loan from the National Gallery of Australia.
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