There’s a lot to like in Celia Imrie’s historical novel, Orphans of the Storm. I wanted to read it because part of it is set on RMS Titanic, but I found that its set of contrasts gave it a wider appeal. This is a book that will surprise you – its handling of the Titanic tragedy is perhaps more subtle than many other popular portrayals. There’s plenty to lose yourself in.
Marcella is a young woman living in Nice, her head full of nothing but a daydream of being a famous singer. She seems to know only one song, La Petite Tonkinoise, but it is quoted regularly, and we can draw our own conclusions about that age’s access to new music. Marcella learns how to run a tailor’s shop but is sweet-talked into an early marriage by her college tutor, Michael, who is in some ways exactly the man you think he is and in other ways nothing like the man we think he is (he has a false identity). Much of the first third of the book is taken up by his appalling behaviour and that of his sidekick, Stefan.But the problem with Michael is that he is too much of a caricature. He has no positive quality and Imrie lays on his vices perhaps a bit too thick.
But then I guess the story isn’t really about Michael (even though, page for page, he possibly gets the most ink). It’s about Marcella, and how she grows up and defines herself, and about another young woman, Margaret, and about how she grows up and defines herself too.
Margaret is a wealthy young WASP who goes to Europe to enjoy herself, to consume and to indulge, and finds herself unmoored by her mid-Atlantic ordeal. She returns to the States with a kind of PTSD, which her family don’t understand and which she can’t explain, and a sort of new fervour or at least a purpose.
We the reader get to compare and contrast the circumstances in which the young women find themselves. For what it’s worth, the poverty of Nice is presented in such a dreamy, romantic, sepia-tinted way that feels more appealing than the sterile society of West End Avenue.
All this is based on a true story and Imrie and her historical researcher Fidelis Morgan have done a fine job piecing everything together. But the real-life nature of it all means that I’m unwilling to look too deeply into whether there are morals buried deep within the tale. Two women find themselves through their involvement in a tragedy: that’s enough. This was a book that was far enough outside my usual area as to be intriguing and different. The chapters involving Michael were frustrating, but the point needed to be made, I guess. I do kind of want to go to Nice now, which is a hitherto unknown spot on the historic Titanic trail, and this reflects the coincidence and happenstance that a novel like this portrays.
Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for the review copy.