Recent books about the Titanic have tended to mirror the sumptuousness of the liner itself. At first glance this one is a dowdy little item, in a typewriter typeface and illustrated with black-and-white photos and reproductions of contemporary store catalogues or newspaper articles. Murphy has used the diary form to chronicle the daily life of a youngster in Belfast during April 1912, when the steamship was launched from the Belfast shipyards on her maiden voyage only to go down a mere two weeks later.
"What is the point of this book?" asked our resident Young Adult reader. The point, I believe, lies in its very dowdiness. The glitter and luxury of the ship can best be appreciated if we have a sense of the shabby and gutsy working class that built her. The family that Murphy presents-two generations away from potato famine days-is clean, hard-working, values education, and belongs to a close-knit neighbourhood. You get intimations of the fragility of their existence (what would happen if the father fell ill?) and the future hell that will be raised by The Troubles: "My mother said...some people want something called Home Rule and others do not. She said it was nothing to do with us and we would be better off going outside with our marbles instead of harrishing her off the face of the earth." The young protagonist assembles a scrapbook of newspaper articles about the Titanic disaster, and this forms the last third of the book. It is fascinating to watch how slowly the news of the disaster's extent spread, and the inaccuracies of the early coverage.
Nothing is more exasperating than historical fiction that teleports a late-twentieth-century personality, value system, and set of expectations into what purports to be a person from an earlier time. (A prizewinning U.S. novel, The Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi, for example, has a typical 1990s teenage girl doing her thing disguised as a man on an early 1800s sailing vessel. At the end she is still on board and her Jolly Tar shipmates know of her true identity, but fortunately they too have late-twentieth-century sensibilities and Accept Her As She Is.) James Cameron's Titanic is almost unwatchable for the same reason: ersatz modernity has been substituted for what could have been a far more interesting invocation of exactly how class divisions, villainy, and heroism manifested themselves in 1912. Murphy does a much better job. You really get a sense of the period's mindset, and how it differs from our own. The way the children play, the meals, the household chores, the quality of the relationships, are all convincing.
Two disappointments. The Irish national character of both the North and the South, always extraordinary, seems to me to filter experience through a lens of poetry and lunatic humour. It's as if they simply can't help themselves, and it appears to be weirdly infectious; even the most stolid Lowland Scot, upon arriving in Ulster, became the same in no time. I know my many times great-grandparents did. There is little sense of this in Murphy's writing. A subsidiary effect of the Irish character is the heartbreaking enthusiasm with which sectarian hatred and religious prejudice are embraced. Again, except for the reference to the Home Rule issue, there is practically nothing of this here. But perhaps I am reading current events backward, and the age of the Titanic held only unrecognizable seeds of the horrors ahead, in which case Murphy's decision to ignore them is legitimate.