Cruise ships have a certain eeriness about them. Stuck out in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles from land, often in enclosed, windowless cabins, the ceaseless rhythm and roar of the water beneath you. But for journalist Lo Blacklock, a trip aboard the Aurora’s maiden voyage is too good an opportunity to pass up, with the potential that it could lead to the career break she’s been waiting for.
The ship she boards is an exclusive, luxury vessel commissioned by Lord Bullmer, a wealthy businessman. Lo hopes to use the cruise around the Norwegian fjords as a chance to network with the clientele on board and score points back home with her boss. But all thoughts of career advancement go out the window when she is awoken in the middle of the night. She’s sure that she’s heard a splash coming from the deck of the cabin next door – the kind of splash that could only be made by a body going overboard.
The problem is, we have here our classic unreliable narrator. A recent break-in at her London flat has left her anxiety-ridden and she is using alcohol to self-medicate. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the ship’s crew and passengers, and she is hard-pressed to find anyone who will believe her story. Growing increasingly desperate and isolated, she tries desperately to get help. But with evidence rapidly disappearing, time is running out and things start to take a very dark turn indeed.
“On deck, the wind hit me in the face like a punch, and I almost stumbled to the rail, hanging over it, feeling the pitch of the boat. The dark gray waves stretched out like a desert – mile upon mile, stretching out to the horizon, no sign of land of any kind, nor even a ship …”
This is a claustrophobic novel, with tightly-wound prose and a steady build-up of menace. Ruth Ware evokes the intensity of being aboard a ship with no way out and no-one to turn to. It was billed as a novel in the vein of Agatha Christie, and you can definitely see the similarities; small crop of characters, singular location, mounting apprehension.
The first two thirds of this book were chilling; I had no idea where the narrative was headed. Rather than everyone being a suspect, I felt that no-one was a suspect – a clever technique that held my interest as our protagonist frantically tried to uncover the truth. Unfortunately, I felt the final third of the book was a let down; too much slid into place, it all became a bit fantastical and took away from the creeping of suspense I had felt when I began reading. That said, it was still a cut above most of the psychological thrillers that are published. Rather than relying on shock tactics of violence and torture, Ware instead delves into the psychological aspects of confinement, fear, and ever-growing unease, in a place where there’s nowhere to run.