What’s it about?
On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.
Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.
I’d seen this book on Sam’s blog and thought I’d try and branch out, step out of my fiction comfort zone and try some non-fiction so I reserved a copy from my library.
I’d really enjoyed the movie Titanic when it was originally released and it’s difficult not to compare and think of that movie when reading this book. Titanic gets quite a few mentions throughout which kept it at the forefront of my mind which did help me visualise the grandeur and size of this ship.
A good two-thirds of the book is the build up and back story to the passengers and crew and how they came to be aboard; down to the small details such as children’s ages and amount of luggage brought aboard. I guess this is to give the reader the profound sense of loss, because as with Titanic, you know it’s going to sink it’s just a matter of when. For me, this build up just went on too long. I appreciate the author wanted everything to be factually and chronologically correct but I just wanted to get to the ship sinking. I know how heartless this must sound because it’s a true story and people did lose their lives and loved ones, I just don’t think we perhaps needed to know what people were wearing and what was for lunch.
“In maritime vernacular, this trail of fading disturbance, whether from ship or torpedo, was called a dead wake.”
I think any reader will sympathise with the tragic loss of life but what also got to me was the loss of certain items that were on the ship and lost forever. There are scenes where belongings are being selected and packed and are described in such detail and you know that they’re all going to be lost to the sea; a Dickens’ novel and a manuscript for example.
“A great swirling greenish white bubble formed where the ship went down, which was a mass of struggling humanity and wreckage!”
Although there is very little dialogue in this book the author still manages to convey the passenger’s voices and characters and has a great way of making non-fiction read like fiction. This is impressive.
Accompanying all the political aspects that will have you asking the same questions and will have you trying to understand the justifications that were given at the time, we get to here about the U-boat captain that ordered the hit, the secret code breakers and the conspiracy theories surrounding the US entering WW1.
Although this took some reading, it’s a fascinating read with a steller amount of research that will appeal to historical buffs or those with a particular interest in WW1.
Connect with the author Erik Larson