Book Review: The Deep by Alma Katsu
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Historical Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (March 10, 2020)
Length: 432 pages
I was a fan of Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, and was excited to hear her next book would be another historical horror, set to the backdrop of the sinking of not one but two great ships—the RMS Titanic and her fleet mate the HMHS Britannic, both of which met tragic fates.
The novel first opens in 1916, as the Great War rages across Europe. For years, Annie Hebbley has been living in an asylum slowly regaining her lost memory. She now remembers her name, the fact that she used to serve as a maid on a passenger liner, and that the ship, Titanic, had struck an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the ocean. Her doctors feel that Annie is now fully recovered, and should return to society and normal everyday life, starting with taking the position she has been offered as a nurse aboard the Britannic, newly refitted as a hospital ship to ferry injured British forces.
And so, Annie embarks on her new journey, quickly settling back into life on the ocean, despite her past traumatic experiences at sea and the fact that her nursing duties are so different than the work she used to do. The story then flashes back to 1912 aboard the Titanic, where Annie served as a cabin maid to the glamorous and wealthy passengers in first class. It is here where she meets and immediately becomes drawn to Mark Fletcher, despite him having a wife and child.
The rest of the novel alternates between these two timelines: the past, which gradually reveals the tumultuous events aboard the Titanic as Annie becomes increasingly embroiled in the Fletcher’s lives; as well as the present, which chronicles her confusion and despair as she chances to meet Mark again on the Britannic. Now a soldier, wounded and in the care of Annie, he had also survived the sinking four years ago but believed that his wife and baby had perished. Rather than sharing Annie’s joy at being reunited, however, Mark instead recoils in horror at the first sight of her, requesting a move to another ward. Deeply hurt, Annie seeks to repair their connection by telling Mark that his daughter had not in fact died that night. But being close to him now has also reawakened buried emotions and secrets, as well as memories that threaten her sanity.
I don’t know what I expected from The Deep, but the horror was most definitely lacking. Instead, the balance heavily favored historical drama, likely caused by the inordinate amount of time it took for this book to get off the ground. To be fair, a story like this needed a lot of setup, considering the two separate narratives that had to be established, and the author chose to unravel both these timelines in tandem which was probably the most efficient for storytelling. However, this decision presented its fair share of problems, not least of them the awkwardness of trying to give each thread the same amount of attention while ensuring the plot’s pace ran smoothly. Unfortunately, this balancing act was not entirely achieved, and whatever horror elements there were ended up slipping through the cracks as a result.
As much as I hate to say, but much of the first half of the book also felt like a waste of time in retrospect. Katsu featured many characters in the Titanic including the wealthy real estate developer and investor John Jacob Astor and his pregnant wife Madeleine, boxers David “Dai” Bowen and Leslie Williams, businessman Benjamin Guggenheim, fashion designer Lady Duff-Gordon and others—all of them real historical figures, but none of whom had really any impact on the overall story whatsoever. To tell the truth, it struck me an indulgence by the author, a way for her to show off her knowledge and research which I have no doubt was considerable, but ultimately unnecessary to the larger picture.
That being said, while The Deep had its flaws, it also had its high points. I absolutely loved the concept behind the book, especially the way it drew attention to the Britannic, which met the same watery fate as the Titanic but is perhaps not as well-known as her sister ship. I also enjoyed the sinking scenes but wish there had been more time spent on them, and that they had been written with greater gravitas. Description was light on the whole with this novel and it’s a shame because so much could have done with the atmosphere, from the luxury and decadence aboard Titanic to the more disturbing, creepier moments like when Annie’s unsettling memories return to haunt her. Generally speaking, the mood was largely absent, which I thought was the novel’s weakest point.
Considering how much I enjoyed The Hunger, it’s hard not to view The Deep as a disappointment. The premise behind it was good but perhaps a tad over ambitious. Building up two timelines at once while trying to inject as much history and horror elements into this awfully restrictive structure ended up causing a lot of balancing and pacing issues, and ultimately, it’s a format that didn’t quite work for me.