Mr. Russell’s conceit works magnificently. It installs a fresh lens onto a drama that most of us first heard as children. It affords him the luxury of patiently setting the scene, which he does by chronicling the pressures mounting on the wealthy on both sides of the Atlantic ... Mr. Russell, a historian from Belfast, seems on slightly surer footing recounting tensions on the British side of the pond, but he fills his tale with worthy shipboard characters from both countries ... One wishes Mr. Russell had also featured one of the rougher emigrants traveling in third class. But he compensates with his sure dissection of Edwardian manners: the ritual teas, the high-church Protestantism, the smug certainty with which privileged heirs assumed their futures ... Mr. Russell exploits our foreknowledge of events to dramatic advantage. The most innocent detail, such as the placement of the lifeboats, fills us with dread ... a beautiful requiem.
... [Russell] proves Titanic’s story is very much worth rediscovering ... Russell concentrates on six such figures, colorfully detailing their wardrobes, meals and pastimes ... He also rigorously debunks darker rumors, painstakingly refuting, for example, the myth that stairways were blocked to prevent third-class passengers from reaching what few lifeboats were available. Russell even reasons that having more lifeboats may not have mattered after all ... Bacteria on the ocean floor may soon finish off the wreckage of Titanic, but her story, like Celine Dion’s Oscar-winning song from the movie, will go on. Gareth Russell does his best to tell it truly.
Gareth Russell tells us the popular appeal of the Titanic outstrips that of every ship since Noah’s ark. In his hands you can understand why ... like spending time with an amusing conversationalist aboard what the Edwardians called 'a ship of dreams' ... Russell shows us around and, like one of the more awkward guests, I have questions. Some beds have 'rose pink duvets'. Surely Russell means eiderdowns? The Titanic’s Turkish baths contain a swimming pool and electric baths, an early form of the tanning bed. Intriguing. In what way were they like a tanning bed? ... Happily, the six first-class passengers and their families on whom Russell focuses prove to be a colourful selection of companions ... [Russell] is good at bringing his favoured passengers to life ... Russell’s social observations are sharp and witty...the wider history he presents is packed with interesting details.
Russell is unsparing in his portraits of those who failed in human decency. The book delves into the many conspiracy myths and even outright lies that have muddied the historical record, somewhat rehabilitating steamship executive J. Bruce Ismay, who survived but was accused of cowardice and worse. Photographs and a comprehensive bibliography add to Russell’s telling.
Russell’s book itself, with its influential and blueblood core cast, is both a reminder and echo of that very Edwardian state of affairs ... This can occasionally tempt Russell to some Edwardian excesses of his own, as when he mentions the 'diplomatic thrombosis of prewar Europe,' or when he makes the bizarre claim about the Titanic that 'the iceberg that pierced her gave her an immortality that no other ship, no matter how large or luxurious, can ever hope to emulate.' (Do other ships hope to emulate the Titanic? I’m guessing not.) ... The book’s main strength is Russell’s skill at examining his sources. He’s not Walter Lord, trooping from one survivor’s parlor to another; since he’s not mainly relying on eyewitnesses, he’s not obliged to believe them. As a result, his account feels quarrelsomely alive in a way most others don’t. And he has a way with a neat turn of phrase ... Because Russell has combed through a vast array of primary and secondary sources, he’s able to fill The Ship of Dreams with the kind of small, immediate details that make for consistently involving reading ... readers get the story of this particular floating Tower of Babel in riveting detail, and with all the wider context they could want.
People who consume one thing about the Titanic tend to consume many, and there is always a shivery pleasure in accompanying old friends as they climb aboard once more, unaware that they are walking not only into a deathtrap but into a metaphor that will rattle down the ages ... It is fun too to wander once more through the Titanic’s preposterous interior ... In truth it is hard to see what Russell adds to a story that has been worn smooth by a century’s worth of popular histories, Hollywood blockbusters and TV documentaries with terrific underwater footage. Even his decision to concentrate on a cluster of individual passengers has been done before by Richard Davenport-Hines in his excellent Titanic Lives. Russell’s variation on this methodology is to spend much longer on his travellers’ backstories in the hope that, plaited together, the result will be something like a synoptic account of the 20th century in its debutante days ... 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.
The account gains momentum post-iceberg, and each individual reveals his or her true character in the face of unfolding tragedy ... Although Ida Straus’s fraught decision to die with her husband, rather than climb into a lifeboat without him, has been oft-portrayed in books and film, it is nonetheless affecting here ... An optional purchase, as this is well-trod ground.
... [an] elegantly written and impressively researched account that takes a uniquely wide-angled view of the disaster ... Russell adroitly sketches the backgrounds of his main characters as he tracks their movements during the fateful trip, drawing from hundreds of sources to describe the ship’s Turkish baths, first-class dining saloon, six-course meals, and boiler rooms. Along the way, he offers crash courses in the decline of the English aristocracy, the Irish home rule movement, the rise of American industrialists, and the fallout from the 1881 assassination of czar Alexander II, among other subjects, and corrects the rumor that third-class passengers were locked in their quarters on the night the ship sank. The result is a scrupulous and entertaining portrait.