Book review: Women and Children First by Gill Paul

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IT’S almost exactly 100 years since the Titanic sank, killing over 1,500 people ... but what of the survivors, how could life ever be the same again when you had heard men, women and children dying in the water around you?

Gill Paul’s moving and captivating novel explores not just the turmoil of the catastrophic end of one of the most famous ships of all time, but its effect on those who lived to tell the tragic tale.

Paul, a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, is no stranger to the history of the terrible events in the North Atlantic on April 15th, 1912. Her biographical book, Titanic Love Stories, shone a poignant light on the 13 real-life brides and grooms who joined the ship to celebrate their honeymoon.

In Women and Children First, she imagines the sinking and its aftermath through the eyes of a mixed bag of passengers who manage to clamber aboard rowing boats while the rest struggle for their lives in the icy water.

It’s a fascinating and inventive new perspective and one that allows us to ponder the fates of those who survived but faced the future under an enormous shadow.

At the centre of the action is Reg Parton, a handsome young steward in the first class dining room, who dreams of his girlfriend Florence back home in Southampton and of making a better life for himself.

He’s thrilled to be a part of the Titanic’s maiden voyage to New York; the brand spanking new liner is a ‘beautiful beast’ and ‘as steady as if you are in your own parlour at home.’

Amongst Reg’s first class passengers is the kind and generous Margaret Grayling, wife of American millionaire George Grayling. Reg has a soft spot for Mrs Grayling and is disturbed to discover that her husband is having an affair with a young woman also travelling on the Titanic.

Also enduring a tempestuous voyage is Lady Juliette Mason-Parker from Gloucestershire. She is travelling with her overbearing mother who is desperate to find a rich American husband for her reluctant daughter.

Juliette’s first problem is that she has no desire to be legally entwined with a millionaire ... the second is that she is two months pregnant to a married man.

Down in third class, Annie McGeown from Cork in Ireland is struggling to keep her four children under control in a limited space but she still feels lucky to be aboard the Titanic. The family is joining husband Seamus in New York where his work on the railways has at last bought them a home and a new life.

When the ship hits a giant iceberg and the unthinkable happens, who will survive and how will they come to terms with the terror of that night?

As new attachments are formed and decisions are made, the survivors will have to live with tragic consequences and watch all their old certainties crumble. Because the sinking not only stole lives but blew apart the hopes and dreams of those who made it back to shore...

Women and Children First is full of superb detail about the Titanic and life on board the doomed ship. It is also an emotional and heart-wrenching story of human suffering and resilience.

With a wide-ranging cast of characters, some unexpected developments and a gripping climax, this blend of fact and fiction is a worthy tribute to those who died ... and those who survived.

(Avon, paperback, £7.99)