About the Book
London, 1841. The Rajah sails for Australia. On board are 180 women convicted of petty crimes, sentenced to start a new life half way across the world. Daughters, sisters, mothers – they’ll never see home or family again. Despised and damned, all they have now is each other. Until the murder.
As the fearful hunt for a killer begins, everyone on board is a suspect. The investigation risks tearing their friendships apart… But if the killer isn’t found, could it cost them their last chance of freedom?
Based on a real-life voyage, Dangerous Women is a sweeping tale of confinement, hope and the terrible things we do to survive.
Format: Hardcover (352 pages) Publisher: Michael Joseph
Publication date: 4th March 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction
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I first heard about this book at Henley Literary Festival in 2019 when it was one of the debut novels featured at the Michael Joseph Proof Party, alongside Stephanie Wrobel’s The Recovery of Rose Gold (which I’ve since read and reviewed). At the time, Dangerous Women was due to be published in 2020 under the title Conviction. For various reasons, publication was delayed but the plot of Dangerous Women is largely unchanged from that which the author described at the time. Indeed the passage from the book which Hope read at the event can be found in the final version. You can read my review of the event here. Be aware it features descriptions of strangers mingling before social distancing was even a thing.
Dangerous Women is inspired by the real life voyage of the Rajah from London to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1841 during which many of the women prisoners, as in the book, worked on the embroidery of an elaborate quilt – now held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. You can read the author’s blog post about how she first learned of the quilt here and view pictures of it here.
Although technically sentenced to transportation for a set number of years, for many of the women aboard the Rajah, it will be the last time they see England, leading to heartbreaking scenes as the ship departs. “The ones who have children will yearn for them. The ones who have living parents will fear their deaths, their sicknesses, and being unable to help them.” But it’s not the same for all the women. For Kezia Hayter, who her whole life has felt underappreciated by her mother compared to her sister Henrietta, it’s a chance to forge an independent path in life. Her appointment as Matron on the voyage is also an opportunity to contribute to a cause about which she feels strongly: the welfare and rehabilitation of female prisoners. From the outset Kezia feels sympathy for and a sense of responsibility towards those in her charge, coming to think of them as her women. She goes out of her way to encourage them and to defend them where necessary.
The convicts are perhaps fortunate in that both the captain of the Rajah, Charles Ferguson, and the ship’s surgeon, Mr. Donovan, hold relatively enlightened views. Like Kezia, they are prepared to recognise that circumstances – poverty, abuse, coercion – may have led the women to commit the crimes they have. Clergyman Mr. Davies, on the other hand, subscribes to the less generous view that the cause of the women’s crimes is sinfulness.
For the women chosen by Kezia to work on the patchwork quilt she has designed, it’s not only a means of learning a skill that may benefit them in their new lives but a chance to leave the confines of below decks where the other less fortunate convicts spend their days. It also becomes a shared endeavour. Despite their different backgrounds and life experiences, by the end of the voyage they have become, as the author so imaginatively describes it, “a patchwork of souls”.
Although we’re told the Rajah is transporting one hundred and eighty women, for narrative reasons the reader only really gets to know the eighteen women chosen by Kezia to work on the quilt, and even then only to varying degrees. The plight of the remaining women and the cramped and claustrophobic conditions that must have existed below deck remain largely in the background, except for a vivid scene in which the Rajah encounters a storm. However, within the circle of women working on the quilt, the reader gets to see friendships formed and severed, stories shared and secrets revealed.
A vivid account of an epic voyage, Dangerous Women is also a cleverly constructed “locked room” mystery. As well as trying to work out who might have carried out the vicious attack that takes place early on in the voyage, I enjoyed looking out for clues to the identity of the individual onboard who is not entirely what they seem. To be truthful, the answer to the latter was revealed a little earlier than I expected but that still leaves plenty of dramatic events to unfold. There are revelations that bring redemption for some and unexpected possibilities for others.
I received an advance review copy courtesy of Michael Joseph via NetGalley.
In three words: Intriguing, compelling, dramatic
About the Author
Hope Adams is a pseudonym of Adele Geras. Adele was born in Jerusalem and spent her early childhood in many different countries, including Nigeria and British North Borneo. She went to Roedean School in Brighton and from there to St Hilda’s College, Oxford.