Monday, 27 January 2014

SOS Lusitania, by Kevin Kiely

13 year old Finbar Kennedy dreams of working on the world's biggest and fastest ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania, just like his dad. After a flying visit during his brief period of shore leave, Staff Captain Kennedy is due to set sail from Ireland to New York. Determined to stow away on board and have some adventures, Finbar slips off in the night to find a hiding place on the ship and leaving his Ma and his siblings. Once on board, Finbar gets cold feet at the last moment and tries to disembark but he's trapped in a cabin and he's just overheard something dangerous...

With the Great War looming over Europe and submarine warfare on the increase, many of the passengers are a bit tense, particularly after certain pieces of propaganda have been printed.  Finbar has his suspicions too about certain individuals on board who are definitely up to something; he's heard whispers of gold, weapons, ammunition and other deadly things.

I really liked Finbar, he had the wide eyed wonder of a child, but the bravery and resilience of a much more mature person.  I loved how much pride he took in performing his messenger role and how pleased he was to be even a small cog in what to him, was the most impressive machine in the world.  Putting his hat straight all the time and racing around like a madman, calling everything 'duty'. His father was also a well crafted character.  It was revealing to see, through Finbar's eyes, the difference between what he was like as a father and what he was like as an officer.  He's obviously a very well respected man, which I think surprised Finbar a bit.  He knew himself what a hero his father was, but I think it seems strange to him to have that confirmed by other, important people.

Based on a true maritime disaster, the blurb makes it clear from the beginning that the Lusitania sinks, with a not-insignificant loss of life.  Comparisons are of course drawn to the Titanic, 2 years previously, but this sinking was no accident.  The book's narrative has a German U-boat torpedoing the Lusitania, but also has characters discuss the idea (in whispers) that it might be a British plot to force the Americans into the War. Successfully, if that was indeed the intention.  The lack of promised Naval support from the British appears to back this up in the plot.  The author never makes it clear which he wants to be the truth, but works each possibility into the narrative.  He also provides details in the appendix about the following real life court cases and the evidence given by the crew and the Navy, leaving the reader to decide for themselves who is responsible for the attack.

An enjoyable read, Finbar makes a good narrator- he's morally upstanding and takes his job seriously. He has a few early dealings with spies, smugglers and illness, but on the whole, the book is a pretty slow burner. They sail, they discover, the dock, they explore, they sail and they sink.  Large parts of the novel are just the daily business of a passenger liner in 1915.  The tension never really builds, I suppose because technically there is no perceived threat, just the chance of threat for much of the book.  Characters can't really react to something that they don't know is there.  It's not until the attack itself that the tension starts to mount and the reader begins to wonder which of the characters will make it to Liverpool. The crux of the story is in the sinking, which from the very start, the reader knows about.  It's a bit of an odd layout for a book, and an unusual narrative structure, but being based on true events it's the way it has to go.  It's an interesting novel, and I think it will prove popular, as disasters at sea seem to appeal to the macabre part of a person's imagination, especially those based on real events.

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