In the early hours of May 29, 1914, the ocean liner Empress of Ireland, bound from Quebec City to Liverpool, U.K., was struck midship by the Norwegian coal freighter Storstad in heavy fog. It took just 14 minutes for the Empress to sink into the frigid waters of the St. Lawrence River, sending 1,012 of the ship’s 1,477 passengers and crew to their deaths. The tragedy has long been overshadowed by the sinking (two years earlier) of the Titanic, but in her latest novel, Governor General’s Literary Award winner Caroline Pignat brings the Empress‘s fateful voyage to the fore as the central event around which she builds a surprisingly intense love story.
In Unspeakable, Ellen Hardy arrives at her Aunt Geraldine’s Liverpool home in a state of desperation. She has been disowned by her wealthy horse-breeder father for a “shameful” act, the nature of which is hinted at but not fully revealed until late in the novel. Having lost her mother a few years before, 17-year-old Ellie is at the mercy of her aunt, a successful if reclusive adventure novelist, to provide her with a home and some chance at a future.
Aunt Geraldine, a tough, independent woman, allows Ellie to wallow for a time before setting her up with a job as a stewardess aboard the Empress. For Ellie, used to the work of rearing horses but raised in privilege, the prospect of serving her peers on the ship is humbling. Life aboard the Empress is difficult, made bearable by the friendship of Ellie’s former maid, Meg, sent along as a fellow stewardess. Then Ellie meets Jim, a stoker with a troubled past of his own, and she finds herself in the midst of a thrilling, confusing romance, brought to a devastating halt by the events of that May morning.
Pignat does an excellent job creating complex, distinct characters. From the elderly butler/chauffeur Bates to Meg to Ellie’s father, even the secondary characters are finely drawn and believable. The intensity of emotion expressed, not only by Ellie and Jim, but by the whole cast, is true to life and engaging. Historical events are related with a sense of immediacy, and the novel’s dramatic opening scene is a gut-wrenching introduction to a story that successfully combines action with quiet moments of introspection as Ellie attempts to rebuild her life in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Perhaps most impressive is Pignat’s tone. The novel is written in accessible language suitable for teens, yet the prose is polished and the plot intricate enough to satisfy adults as well. Mark Unspeakable as a YA title with huge crossover appeal.