The Deep from author Alma Katsu is the perfect example of a genre I like to call Historical Fiction with a Twist. To qualify, that twist needs an element of fantasy or supernatural. In this case, Katsu imagines the lives of Titanic passengers and crew. With the hint of foreboding spirits. Truthfully, it’s more of a twist than a hint.
Katsu’s main character is young, Irish Annie Hebbley whose story shifts from 1912 to 1916. We also get snippets of her youth in Ireland, especially as it relates to Irish myths and legends. In 1912, Annie is a stewardess serving first-class cabins on the Titanic. In the line of duty, Annie meets Mark and Caroline Fletcher, and their wee daughter Ondine. She’s immediately drawn to them, especially to the baby. And as the voyage progresses, their lives become tangled together.
But we first meet Annie as she’s discharged from an asylum in 1916. Clearly, she survives the shipwreck, albeit not completely intact psychically. One reason Annie leaves the institution is the invitation to work as a fledgling nurse aboard the hospital ship Britannic, sister to Titanic.
Annie finds the experience more unsettling than she bargains for. Partly, that’s because both ships have exactly the same layout. And she also sees one of the first class passengers among her 1916 patients. It’s within that relationship that the real mystery of The Deep lies.
One of the things I like most about this book is how Katsu layers many plot elements together. It’s hard to tease them into individual threads, which enhances the mysterious nature of the story. In addition to Annie and the Fletchers, she includes two young Welsh men. They earn their living as boxers, and aspire to great wealth, if not integrity, in America. She also follows some of the real-life Titanic and Britannic passengers, most notably Violet Jessop who famously served on both ships. And of course, we need to get a feel for the mega-rich couples like John Jacob Astor and his much younger, pregnant, second wife.
Although I’m not well-versed in the real history of either ship, I believe Katsu presents a well-researched historical fiction novel. Her descriptions are rampant with detail—of the ships, the gowns, the events. So many things that can only come from historical accounts. And she also accurately represents the popularity of occultism during that era. Folks thought seances and spirits had direct connection to our world in a way that’s different than our modern perspective.
All in all, I found this a satisfying, twisty, historical fiction story. Once I started, it was hard to put it down. I wanted to untangle the mystery and find out why Annie had that interlude in the asylum. And Katsu made me work for it. While she foreshadows like crazy, the full explanation happens late in the book. As all good twists should!
Pair with a nonfiction read about the Titanic or Britannic. If you want a peek into New York high society in this time period, try Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote. Or think like me and buy Katsu’s earlier book, The Hunger.
Many thanks to NetGalley, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and the author for the opportunity to read a free digital ARC in exchange for this honest review.