Portraits in Survival

Book Review of “On a Cold Dark Sea” by Elizabeth Blackwell.

44247-cold2bdark2bsea-1The Titanic; it was supposed to be the most wondrous ship ever built. But for Esme, Charlotte and Anna, surviving that fateful crossing has stalked their whole lives, each in very different ways. Particularly because each of these three women were on different classes of tickets, and this isn’t a story mainly about the tragedy, but rather about what came afterwards for them. Blackwell’s newest work is therefore a different kind of Titanic novel.

I must honestly admit that I’ve never read any books about the Titanic until now (although I’ve seen a few films about it). That’s is certainly surprising since the Titanic is one of those subjects that has inspired well over a hundred novels and several movies. However, most of them focus on the sinking itself and/or the immediate aftermath of the incident, and very few seem to investigate what became of the lives of those who made it through. I’m not sure if that’s why I decided I wanted to read this book, but it must have been part of it. What I didn’t realize when I requested this novel was how Blackwell’s vision for this book is so unique.

What makes this book different than so many of the others, is that Blackwell not only focuses on these survivors’ lives decades after the event, but that we see behind the scenes of the types of people that the real newspapers, and probably by their virtue, most books (both fiction and non-fiction), never covered. Blackwell gives us Esme, an American first-class passenger, Charlotte, a British second-class passenger, and Anna, a Swedish third-class passenger, all of whom ended up on Lifeboat 21. To make this even more interesting, Blackwell gives each of these women a secret.

Let me get the bad news out of the way here, and that has to do with how Blackwell put the account of the events in the lifeboat into this story. After we hear about these three women’s stories after the sinking, Blackwell goes back to the “scene of the crime” (if you will) to give us an overview of those events, before taking us to these women again. At first, I thought that this was altogether superfluous, but later understood why it was included. However, I just have a feeling that she put this in the wrong place in this book. It felt more like having a prologue show up in the middle of the story, and out of context. Not that it wasn’t written well, because it certainly was, it just broke up the story’s overall flow for me.

That said, this was the only thing that bothered me about this book, because everything else was very enjoyable. The idea that these three women from very different worlds, all end up on the same lifeboat, is the perfect backdrop for mystery. Blackwell also throws in some fictional transcripts from the US Senate’s inquiry into the disaster, which nicely sets up one of the later chapters. Through these portraits of their post-disaster lives, Blackwell brings in the types of psychological scars and emotional tolls that long-term silence and guilt can have on a person. Of course, the trauma of that voyage only exacerbates these women’s own demons and pasts. Furthermore, Blackwell brings this all together using Charlotte as a kind of pivot point-person, where her post-disaster career in journalism allows her to connect the dots.

Of course, none of this would have worked if the prose hadn’t carried it all through with such precision. Blackwell perfectly succeeds in giving each of these women very distinct voices, setting up the atmosphere with adroitly constructed language, and allowing us to observe the complex emotions that these women go through, which felt realistic, without being predictable or sentimental. Overall, Blackwell’s writing is gracefully unpretentious, mixed with just enough dynamic interludes to punch up the drama when needed, making this into a very imaginative work that I can warmly recommend with a strong four out of five stars.


Lake Union Publishing released “On a Cold Dark Sea” by Elizabeth Blackwell on April 10, 2018. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

2 thoughts on “Portraits in Survival

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.