ON AN ocean liner bound for the far side of the world, everyone’s running away from something – or so it’s safe to assume, considering that perfectly contented, secure individuals rarely uproot themselves from a successful, established life in order to start afresh.
When Lily, 25, a waitress hoping to find employment in one Sydney’s grand English-style mansions, embarks on the adventure of a lifetime from Tilbury, London, she has little idea what the next few weeks of sailing will bring.
It is mid 1939, and with the possibility of war hanging over Europe, Lily is not the only one looking forward to exploring options far from home.
Her dinnertable companions include siblings Edward and Helena, a conservative pair driven out of cold, damp England by poor health, and George, an only son being sent by his father to sit out the impending upheaval in the safety of New Zealand.
Sharing a cabin with Lily are fellow assisted migrants Ida and Audrey, young women making the trip to Sydney alone at the urging of the two countries’ governments.
Also part of the eclectic mix are Eliza and Max, a hedonistic couple from the first-class deck whose scandalous past is very much present with them even as they pretend to shrug it off.
At the far end of the spectrum are Jewish refugee Maria and a group of Italian wives whose husbands have preceded them.
As the cross-section of society undertakes one of the classic voyages of the mid 20th Century, its members explore the exotic unfamiliarity of Gibraltar, Nice, Naples, Port Said, Suez, Aden and Colombo en route to Fremantle, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
However, nothing they encounter ashore is nearly as dangerous as their time on board, crowded together in oppressive, frustrating conditions where class distinctions and racial tensions test even the calmest of personalities.