Thursday 18 February 2016

Book Review: A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

On April 15th, 1912, Titanic, the world's largest passenger ship, sank after colliding with an iceberg, claiming more than 1,500 lives. Walter Lord's classic bestselling history of the voyage, the wreck and the aftermath is a tour de force of detailed investigation and the upstairs/downstairs divide. A Night to Remember provides a vivid, gripping and deeply personal account of the 'unsinkable' Titanic's descent.

I read A Night to Remember as part of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge. From as far back as I can recall, I've had a fascination with the Titanic and her tragic sinking. And having just recently been to Belfast just to go to the Titanic Museum there, I felt a renewed interest in the story.

A Night to Remember was originally published in 1955 and it was the first definitive resource about the Titanic disaster. Lord interviewed a number of survivors and painstakingly researched the investigations into the sinking to provide a thorough account of that tragic night. Over the years I have read many books and articles about the Titanic, but for some reason I'd never picked up Lord's book. Having read it now, I can clearly see why it is so successful. Lord writes with brevity and his book is full of information about that night, but what sets this book apart from others is the extent to which he wove survivors' interviews into a narrative.

Hearing what individual passengers did during the hours it took for the Titanic to sink brings this story to life, and reminds us that these people were real, this awful event did indeed take place, and 1500 lives were lost. Titanic's sinking is not just fodder for romantic movies; it is a maritime disaster like no other. Lord's account is overwhelmingly sad in parts, but that's why it's such a well-written book. It gets to the heart of the event; how people react in a life and death situation.

The thing that always strikes me about Titanic's sinking is the part that fate played in the tragedy. Lord talks about this in the book and lists all the things that could have gone another way on that fateful night, things that certainly would have changed events dramatically. For example - what if ice warnings had been heeded? What if wireless operator Phillips hadn't been flustered with overwork and didn't cut off the Californian's message about icebergs? What if the Californian had gone to Titanic's aid? The list goes on. There are a heap of 'what ifs', as there always is when tragedy occurs. Unfortunately for Titanic and her passengers, fate wasn't working in her favour that evening.

One particular event in the book stood out to me. Lord talks about the men who clung to the upturned collapsible lifeboat B for hours after the sinking. The boat was partially submerged, and to counteract the motion of the boat (for fear of capsize) the men stood in lines on the upturned boat and swayed from side to side to maintain balance. They did this for hours. A remarkable feat of perseverance. It just goes to show what we'll put ourselves through to survive.

Overall, A Night to Remember is a gripping and heartbreaking account of the Titanic and her passengers. Lord is an excellent writer who manages to provide every detail, significant or small, to create an ultimate record of Titanic's maiden voyage and sinking. I thoroughly enjoyed his book.


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