Dangerous Women by Hope Adams is published with Penguin Michael Joseph. Based on the real-life 1841 voyage of the convict ship Rajah from London to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Dangerous Women is described as an historical thriller, ‘a tale of confinement, hope and the terrible things we do to survive’.
Hope Adams was inspired to write Dangerous Women when she first came across the Rajah Quilt in 2009 at an exhibition at the V&A. The Rajah Quilt is a large quilt that was made by female prisoners en-route from London to Australia by ship in 1841 and is currently to be found on display at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Using the Rajah as her backdrop Hope Adams, with a mix of fact and fiction, adds a more sinister element to the voyage.
The Rajah was carrying a bunch of women from London, all convicts, imprisoned for minor demeanours, all being transported in servitude to Van Diemen’s Land until their sentences were up. Alongside them was Kezia Hayter, a young woman who wished to leave behind the trappings of society’s expectations and see more of the world. Kezia’s role on board the ship was a matronly one. She was there if the women needed assistance and to bolster their camaraderie and general health with song and activities. With a very long journey ahead of them, many of these women would struggle being at sea, so Kezia selected a number of them to assist her in a project. They were going to design a special quilt as a gift to Van Diemen’s Land for accepting them in their country. It was in recognition of the second chances being offered to all these women.
During the voyage many were mouthy and the occasional tussle was nothing unusual but an unexpected scream and a bloody scene was a shock to all. One of the women, a mother, was stabbed, left to die. Nobody saw it. There were no witnesses, no one to point the finger at. No one to shout murderer at. The Captain takes immediate charge and sets up an on-board inquisition to unearth the perpetrator. Kezia is selected as part of this investigation but she cannot understand how any of her charges could have done this.
As the ship continues it’s sailing through the high seas, the climate both above and below deck changes. An underlying fear, a sense of mistrust forms among the passengers. Which one of these women is guilty and why? Kezia continues to maintain a sense of order among the women and the sewing of the quilt continues to add structure and distraction to their days but, with every role of the sea and, as they get nearer their final destination, the killer remains hidden.
Dangerous Women is a locked room mystery. We have a body, we have a ship alone out at sea, a crew and a list of passengers. One of them is responsible for a heinous crime, but who? Hope Adams explores the sense of confinement, the dark shadows, the mistrust and the friendships that develop among these women. They are primarily an uneducated group of women, some hiding secrets, many ashamed of their beginnings in life. In Van Diemen’s Land a new slate awaited them but if the murderer wasn’t caught, what would happen to them all? Someone had to hang for this crime.
Dangerous Women is an interesting read but I was expecting something less gentle, a little more desolate. These were petty criminals, many hardened women and, in some cases, their edges felt a little too soft, too rounded for the experiences they have had. They have a murderer amongst them and I thought they would be tougher in their reactions, a bit more colourful in their language perhaps. The Rajah Quilt is very much central to this tale and to be honest, the murder mystery felt almost a distraction to their work on the piece. Hope Adams is obviously very much enthralled by the quilt and using it as part of the plot was a great idea but I was definitely expecting a much darker read when I embarked on my journey.
Dangerous Women is very much a book about new beginnings and developing new relationships. It had an unexpected gentleness that really did surprise me and some very fascinating historical insights. I have since looked up further information on The Rajah Quilt and it really is a work of art, an amazing piece of work. A very insightful book from a historical fiction perspective, Dangerous Women is a snapshot of a time and place, when the world was changing but when women were still treated with very little respect and dignity. Dangerous Women is an enjoyable read, a locked room mystery of murder on the high seas.
“I have tried to be as faithful as possible to the real events of the voyage. It’s very well-documented. We have Kezia’s diaries, the Captain’s Log, the Surgeon Superintendent’s log and the names, crimes and physical descriptions of all 180 convict women. I have used none of the convicts’ names, because their descendants are still alive and well in Australia and especially Tasmania. Also, because this is a novel and not a history book, I have added a thriller element to my story, a ticking clock: will whoever stabbed one of the women be discovered and brought to justice before the ship docks in Hobart? Most of my characters and what happens on board the Rajah in the book are my invention. In real life, this was a very peaceful and uneventful voyage with very little illness and only one death from natural causes. But Dangerous Women is a novel and my ambition is that all Adèle Geras’s readers will enjoy it.” – Hope Adams/Adele Geras
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