Stacey Lee has earned critical acclaim and a loyal readership for intricately plotted fiction featuring Chinese characters amid memorable historical settings, including Under a Painted Sky and The Downstairs Girl. Her new book, Luck of the Titanic, was prompted by a little-known fact: Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived, but they were deported within 24 hours of arriving in the United States.
The novel opens with a mesmerizing action scene as Valora Luck, a trained acrobat, catapults her way on board the doomed ship. Although she has a valid first-class ticket, an officer has refused to let her board, claiming she lacks proper documentation and won’t be allowed to disembark in America due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But Valora is determined to join her twin brother, Jamie, who has already boarded in third class for the first leg of a journey to Cuba. They haven’t seen each other for two years, and Valora has a scheme to reunite them: She wants to convince a circus executive who’s also on board to hire them both as acrobats for the Ringling Brothers.
Lee’s characters often adapt disguises, and Valora alternately poses as a male laborer alongside Jamie below decks and as a fashionable first-class widow who turns heads with her confidence and style. As Valora navigates the highly class-conscious world of the ship, readers witness the stark discrepancies between rich and poor, as well as some of the racist behavior of its passengers. “The English love all things Chinese—silk, tea, plates—just not if it comes with a beating heart,” Valora observes.
The narrative builds slowly toward the looming, inevitable tragedy. In a moment of overt dramatic irony, a well-heeled character remarks, “Imagine being afraid on such a magnificent vessel as the Titanic.” Once the ship strikes the iceberg, Lee unspools one heartbreaking scene after another as Valora, Jamie and their friends struggle to find each other and reach safety.
From the start, readers are aware that two of the book’s Chinese characters will die. When one succumbs early in the disaster, the remainder of the novel becomes a superbly choreographed guessing game of who the second victim will be. Despite the hardships its characters encounter, Luck of the Titanic is anchored by its energetic and empowered heroine. This novel is an admirable and engaging addition to the annals of fictional Titanic lore.