Russell has written a biography of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, as well as a book on the fall of Europe’s three emperors in the First World War. He is good at bringing his favoured passengers to life and, through their backstories, we are informed about such various things as American antisemitism, Europe’s arms race, the divisions over Home Rule in Ireland, and much else.
In principle there is nothing wrong with wrenching the Titanic away from its frozen moment and restoring it to the ebb and flow of ordinary time. The problem is that this isn’t what Russell really wants to do. As his portentous title suggests, he is in the business of making the Titanic story huge and metaphorical, a morality tale about the collapse of a somewhat slipshod civilisation. The result is as unconvincing as the ship’s haphazard interior, a pile-up of the gaudy and the mundane.
Had he stuck to his original premise, Russell would have written a book about Titanic that broke new ground, but his six first-class passengers themselves keep vanishing as Russell puts aside their stories to indulge in Titanic trivia. The narrative first loses its focus, and then loses its way... After a rocky voyage, the book ends with a frustrating double verdict. The reason Titanic hit the iceberg was because she was running at an excessive speed, but the disaster was not the fault of any one person: it “was the fault of everyone and thus, potentially, of nobody”. It was not the fault, however, of those immigrants looking to start a new life in America, or the men at Harland and Wolff who prided themselves on having built a perfect ship.
His attempt to present the Titanic’s fate as a fin-de-siècle event isn’t entirely convincing. What isn’t in doubt, though, is his research. The attention to detail is astonishing: if you’ve ever wondered how passengers booked a hot bath, look no further. However, the minutiae sometimes get in the way of the narrative. When Andrews drives past a school on his way to the docks, do we really need to know that the school’s rugby team had two weeks previously lost 11-3?