Every Man for Himself - 2015 Reading Challenge
So far on this challenge, I think I've read a pretty wide variety of books. I've read books written this year and books written before my parents were even born, books written in and translated from other languages, books set in at least five different countries, books by men and women, young and old. Award-winners by established authors and gorgeous debuts.
Last week, I picked up Beryl Bainbridge's Whitbread Novel Award-winning Every Man for Himself: a short, dramatic novel set on the doomed RMS Titanic. Through the eyes of an orphan-turned-rich-upper-class man in his early twenties, we see the days leading up to the great ship's demise in the Atlantic.
Let me just say, I, like many others, am quite obsessed by the Titanic story. I am also incredibly freaked out by the coincidences associated with a novel written 14 years before the ship ever took its maiden voyage, which tells the story of a ship called Titan that sinks in the Atlantic after striking an iceberg.
I mean, seriously.
So it was a no-brainer to pick up my first Bainbridge novel considering it had won such a prestigious award and it was based on the events of a tragedy that still enrages me even though it happened 100 years ago.
A book based on a true story
The eeriness of largely knowing how a story is going to end cannot be understated. It was the same when I watched the Titanic movie, which came out the same year as this book, by the way. You know the ship is going to sink -- you just don't know which of the characters you're getting to know will die.
I did feel a lot of compassion for Morgan. He's in love with a girl who messes him around. He's surrounded by high-class dolts and while he fits in all right, he's still just a normal young man in his twenties who's trying to find his place in the world. He misses his sister and longs to know more about his parents. He wants a career, but he doesn't know in what yet. He pities the poor but doesn't really bother to help them.
Morgan is, in fact, pretty normal. That being said, he's also a frustrating mess to experience this story through. He often makes a decision and then changes his mind within minutes. He sees the injustices between the upper and lower classes, but he remains quiet.
There is a rather large cast of characters for such a small novel, and it painstakingly takes us through each day leading up to the sinking of the ship, which is really only covered in the last quarter of the novel.
While there were some clever moments, and some interesting dialogue, and while Bainbridge obviously researched this novel thoroughly and provided some details I've never seen before, I was sort of bored. I mean, I knew it was going to sink. The whole time, the only suspense in the story was knowing it was going to sink, which had nothing to do with the author's mastery of suspense but more so with my knowledge of the real events.
I did have a rush of rage when they clambered into lifeboats and these stupid people refused to get in because they were so certain the boat wouldn't really sink and they didn't want to tear their dresses. I voiced anger several times as third-class passengers were barred from the lifeboats while their high-class counterparts wouldn't even put on life preservers and the boats were lowered with only a quarter capacity.
There weren't enough lifeboats for everyone on board, but so many more lives could have been saved if people hadn't been such idiots.
Bainbridge handles all these events well, inducing the appropriate level of fury as we watch lives uselessly wasted. I think she captures the lives and cares of the upper class and gives a realistic portrayal of what it must have been like on that ship.
I'm not sure why, then, that I'm left without any regret of finishing the book. That, to me, is what separates good books from great ones -- when I just don't want it to end. With Every Man for Himself, I didn't mind in the least when the last page came along.
Feature image credit: Cliff, 2009