Caught Between the Devil and ‘The Deep’

For this week’s The Deep Part Two (The Deep-er? The Deep-ening?), I got to read Alma Katsu’s novel about the sinking of the Titanic and I was SO EXCITED because I was absolutely gripped by her last book, The Hunger, which was about the Donner Party.  I went to a reading and a signing of The Hunger back in the Days Before Corona (remember those?) and she talked about this one and how much research was going into it, so I was stoked to see that it had come out and that it was available at my digital library.

In The Deep, Katsu delivers another well-researched famous human disaster drawn over with a thin veil of the supernatural and a substantial helping of unease. But while it had many of the same elements that made me love The Hunger so much, I think having that implicit comparison in mind as I read The Deep damaged my perception of it.

Glitz and glamour and ghosts, oh my!

This The Deep darts between the voyages of the Titanic and the Britannic, sister ships who were used for vastly different goals but who both met tragedy in the Atlantic four years apart. Through the eyes of a stewardess, a pair of boxers-conmen, and a handful of first-class elites all with secrets of their own, we see the triumph and the terror of the Titanic’s first—and last—voyage.

At the beginning of the book, we only have the assuredness that the stewardess, Annie, escapes with her life and is later recruited to be a nurse on the Britannic, which has been retrofitted as a hospital ship during World War I. On the Titanic, a fascination of the occult leads the first-class passengers to dabble in the supernatural, but the death of one couple’s young servant boy and a series of unexplained incidents puts everyone on edge. On the Britannic, Annie has an unexpected reunion from someone she’s become obsessed with on the Titanic, and makes crucial and terrifying connections to what happened on the infamous ship. Over it all is the specter of a love lost under mysterious circumstances.

There are a lot of moving parts to The Deep, and for the most part, they work well. Everyone, it seems, is operating under multiple veils of secrecy and respectability, and their motives frequently conflict in dramatically ironic ways. Katsu reveals information steadily and skillfully, peeling away layers one by one until the characters’ insecurities and secrets are all laid bare. When the end comes, some of them are redeemed. Others are damned.

Some of the endings feel a little pat. Some feel too unfinished. Some don’t seem like they played a meaningful role in the narrative after all. While the messiness says something about the nature of abrupt ends and how little disasters care about an individual’s story being cut short, something about it felt unsettled to me. 

At the risk of giving away too much, one of the strangest things about this book was how close to the fore romance was at all times. Not the romance of the sea or the romance of the past; love, relationships, sex, and all the secrets and emotions and conflicts and tensions that come with. Which does, I suppose, fit the decadence of the Titanic, but felt odd to have such omnipresence in a ghost story. Then again, maybe it fit perfectly. A ghost lingers because they have unfinished business in life or something else tethering them here instead of letting them move on; what could be more binding than matters of the heart?

Apparently framing the sinking of the Titanic with a love story is a thing now?

The Deep was good. I think I would have liked it if I hadn’t read and loved The Hunger before. But I did and no matter how much I tried to read The Deep objectively, I failed. The Hunger was just better, or at least it resonated better with me. I guess that’s the challenge for any author, making sure their fans love each new project like the one that originally brought them in. But I’m not so fickle a fan as to say The Hunger is the only good thing Katsu has or will write. The Deep was disappointing but it wasn’t a disappointment. I’ll be back whenever Katsu is, ready to read whatever comes next.

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