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The Deep by Alma KatsuUK edition3 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe Deep (not to be confused with the 2019 novella of the same title by Rivers Solomon) is another exercise in historical horror from Alma Katsu, following The Hunger, which made everyone’s life in the Donner Party even worse by adding zombies. This time, the horror content is probably too tame to satisfy fans of that genre. But I won’t go so far as to say it hits an iceberg and sinks.

With its focus on not one but two love triangles gone tragically wrong, The Deep is a shipboard melodrama that could be thought of as a paranormal romance, though thankfully it doesn’t follow the standard formula for that genre either. Let’s just say The Deep is in a class by itself, even if it is second-class. It’s slow but fitfully entertaining. And while it’s never terribly spooky or suspenseful, let alone scary, Alma Katsu delivers a twisty plot informed by meticulous research into the historical period, and gives us two massive ocean liner sinkings for the price of one. Bang for your buck, I always say.

As expected, the story throws actual historical characters together with fictitious ones to paint a rich tapestry of a bygone time. In 1912, poor young Irish lass Annie Hebbley, having run away from home under sketchy circumstances, finds herself a job as a First Class stewardess on the maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic. There she befriends fellow stewardess Violet Jessop, who made actual history of her own by surviving both the sinkings of the Titanic and its sister ship, the Britannic, four years later. Evidently someone who enjoyed tempting fate, Violet Jessop actually went back to work for the White Star Line in 1920, and continued working on ships for thirty more years, eventually retiring and dying at the ripe of age of 83.

A woman this badass clearly deserves her own novel, but in The Deep, we’re stuck with Annie, who is not, if you will pardon the phrase, someone with all her oars in the water. The story jumps back and forth between 1912, depicting her experiences aboard Titanic, and 1916, after Annie has spent four years in a mental institution from which she is discharged in order to join her old friend Violet once again working on Britannic. By 1916, the Great War has broken out, and Britannic is no longer the floating Edwardian luxury palace of yore. With all of its luxury fittings stripped out, it now functions as the Royal Navy’s biggest hospital ship, and Annie and Violet are no longer stewardesses to the 1%, but nurses looking after grievously wounded soldiers.

Aboard Titanic, Annie develops an immediate attraction to — even a fixation on — one of her First Class passengers, handsome newlywed Mark Fletcher. Working-class Mark has married up. His new wife Caroline is a fabulously wealthy and still young society widow, and they have their baby Ondine with them as they journey to America in hope of a new life. Annie’s attraction appears at first to be basic instalove. But as the story slowly peels back the layers concealing our characters’ troubled histories, we learn there’s quite a bit more going on than meets the eye. Katsu is, I have to admit, very clever in the way she establishes an atmosphere of melancholy and impending doom over these characters that only partly has to do with the ship’s imminent sinking. In fact, what is interesting about The Deep as a Titanic story is the way in which it’s probably the only story I’m aware of that takes place on the ship that doesn’t make the legendary iceberg encounter the entire payoff for all its dramatic buildup. The sinking is treated almost as if it’s an “Oh great, on top of everything else, now this!” kind of situation.

An aura of supernatural menace hovers in the background, not only of the central plotline involving Annie and Mark and Caroline, but of supporting players both real and invented. Madeleine Astor, the 18-year-old bride of tycoon John Jacob Astor, has a prominent role, centered on her panic that her husband’s vindictive ex-wife has placed an actual curse on her. On top of the already semi-scandalous nature of their marriage in the public eye, and the mysterious sudden death of a young boy who was one of the family servants, Madeleine is portrayed as so emotionally fragile and imbalanced that she’s one dose of cocaine away from losing her sanity altogether. Among the fictive characters are the journalist William Stead, heavily into spiritualism and seances, who frightens the impressionable Madeleine with stories of vengeful spirits who may be prowling the ship possessing passengers. And there is a pair of lads from steerage, bare-knuckle boxers David Bowen and Les Williams, who are scheming to commit various con games targeting First Class toffs.

It’s all as busy as it sounds. And while all of this could be given a rich dramatic workout if it ended up being adapted into a streaming miniseries, as a novel The Deep often feels as if it’s juggling too many pins at once and taking a far too leisurely path to its big reveals. There are more incidental subplots demanding our attention than absolutely necessary, and more than once, Katsu cheats her way out of a narrative corner she’s painted herself into.

But you don’t go into a story like this expecting perfect realism or even flawless believability in the first place, and if you come into The Deep in the right frame of mind, you’ll enjoy the way Katsu immerses you in the period while tying as many of her disparate plot threads together as she can manage. It is a pretty bold move for the book to tie the fate of both Titanic and Britannic, which sank in 1916 after hitting a German mine, to the fates of Annie and Mark. And if you really just need another tragic Titanic love story in your life, unlike the other one, this one at least throws in madness, queer boxers, and a conniving selkie. Game, set and match to Alma Katsu.