Monday, August 17, 2009

Unpredictable Crossing

The first reason I asked to review this book is because the antagonist’s last name is Perreira and mine is Perera. The second reason is that the plot sounded interesting.

Unpredictable Crossing, by Jonna-Lynn Mandelbaum, tells the story of a coincidental meeting that uncovers an act of genocide. On a cruise ship, Tristi, a stewardess, realizes that a passenger called Colonel Perreira once ordered the massacre of everyone in her village in Mozambique. But another passenger, Amanda Allmond, is also someone Tristi knew in the past. Their three stories intertwine on the ship.

I like the setup and the international flair of the book. It’s also very obvious that the author has done her research. In fact, it’s too obvious. Every word and phrase of Portuguese in the story is accompanied by the English translation in parentheses, to the point where it becomes obtrusive and even repetitive (the words bom and querida are translated twice, for instance).

For an example of translations that don’t hinder the flow of the story, I recommend Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, which also features dialogue in Portuguese but which either switches to English quickly or assumes the reader can tell that “Nao ha problema” means “No problem”.

The other problem is the amount of information that this book presents on cruise ships, vacationing in the Bahamas, African traditions, genocide and women’s rights. Some of this is included in at least thirteen paragraph-long footnotes, and each time I encountered one of these it jerked me out of the story. Some of it is embedded into the text in infodumps.

Most is unnecessary. I was hoping the story would be about the growing tension between Tristi and Colonel Perreira in the closed confines of a cruise ship, but instead the story went into detail about the characters’ meals, diversions, clothes, etc. It also included long descriptions about every port of call and every tourist attraction. I like reading about this kind of thing in Judith Krantz’s novels, but it felt out of place here. Several lengthy flashbacks, told in italics, further slowed down the forward momentum of the story.

There was a good moment characterization-wise, when Amanda notices the colonel (who is evil incarnate in every other respect) teaching a boy how to swim. I enjoyed that; it was realistic and subtle. Unfortunately the narrative then took away the subtlety.

The exchange between the colonel and the boy reminded Amanda that as bad as a person seems, there is always a basic humanity that glows within, if conditions are right.

There’s no need to underline things like this, and I’m sorry to say that it lends a preachy feel to the story. Tristi and Amanda are decent people, and that’s pretty much all I remember of them (though the moment Tristi showed Amanda her spike-ring, I knew she would use it to get away from Colonel Perreira – it was so obvious a Chekhov’s gun).

This story could have been much tenser if the characters had been painted in shades of grey, if they had really clashed with each other. Instead it’s a cross between a travelogue and a history text, with a cruise where some nice people ate some great food and had a good time.

This book was printed by Outskirts Press and is a trade paperback, 175 pages, $14.95.


Paige Jeffrey said...

Almost, almost makes you want to write your own version with the same idea, just to see if you can do it. :)

Marian Perera said...

Yes, it does. I like stories where people are trapped in close, claustrophobic situations with an antagonist (whether it's a person or a disease, a la The Cassandra Crossing). There's conflict and tense confrontations built into that kind of thing.

More of that would have been very interesting - and with a gripping enough story, I'm less likely to notice infodumps, if the author really wants to teach me something.

Anonymous said...

The premise definitely sounds intriguing. Too bad it didn't meet your expectations.

Speaking of people trapped together, did you ever see Hitchcock's, "Lifeboat"? I think it's one of his most underrated works. Survivors of a ship are stuck together on a tiny lifeboat with a Nazi survivor from the ship that struck theirs.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Tasha,

I think I've seen that particular scenario more than once in different genres of fiction, but trust Hitchcock to be the originator. :)

Thanks for the recommendation. I actually haven't watched much Hitchcock except for "Rear Window", but that one was so edge-of-your-seat.

Sean B. Halliday said...

For some real true stories about what happens on cruise ship, check out:


Sean (former crew member)

Anonymous said...


If you want to check out more Hitchcock, I'd say his best work is "Vertigo."