On a Cold Dark Sea is a new historical fiction novel from Elizabeth Blackwell which follows the lives of three women before and after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
It was an easy, pleasant read which widened the usual scope of Titanic stories to the years leading up to the tragedy. The narrative then fast-forwarded to find out how our heroines had coped with the life-changing trauma in a time when post-traumatic stress syndrome and survivor counselling weren’t even a thing.
The variety in the interwoven stories was lovely – one was a first-class passenger, one a second-class passenger and one third-class. There are some great insights into the vastly different experiences of life in early 20th century America and Europe, depending on your wealth.
On a Cold Dark Sea won’t tell you anything new about the Titanic that you won’t already have learned from watching Kate Winslet and Leo Di Caprio in the 1997 blockbuster film (disclaimer: I watched it 3 times at the cinema and subsequently spent hours looking through microfiche of 1912 newspaper reports. Then I wrote a 4000 word essay for my History undergraduate degree. Don’t do that – it’ll destroy the film for you and you’ll realise how dreadful it really is…).
Lower class passengers were put on the boats last or not at all. The life boats were ill-provisioned and left the ship half empty. Some survivors took advantage of the anonymity of their rescue and arrival in New York.
Hundreds froze to death in the ocean that night. Just like Kate pushing a frosty Leo off that door (there was totally room for both of them. And no, I won’t just let it go).
I’m not sure we’ll ever get ‘enough’ stories of the sinking of the Titanic. Thousands of words have been written in the past 100 years or so trying to figure out why we’re so obsessed with it. And yet, there are so many individual stories that could be told. This book tells a few more. It won’t tug at the heart strings like the movie. But really, it’s a hard act to follow.
Most of the characters are fictional, though their stories are based on real events. Elizabeth Blackwell has said she wrote it because of a driving curiosity about what it was like to have been sitting in one of the lifeboats, listening to the screams of dying passengers as they slowly froze; watching the ship go down.
If you’re interested in reading primary sources, head to the full Titanic inquiry accounts – both British and American online. Otherwise, grab a copy of this book and start reading. Enjoy!