On May 28th, 1914, the RMS Empress of Ireland sank in the St Lawrence River, fourteen minutes after being struck by the SS Storstad. Of the 1477 people on board, 1012 perished. Ellen Hardy survived.
Winner of the 2009 Governor General’s Award, Caroline Pignat, returns with Unspeakable, a stunning work of historical fiction that explores the rigid cultural norms and mores of Edwardian society. Working as a maid aboard the Empress, eighteen-year-old Ellen thinks she has found lasting love with Jim, a coal-stoker. But Ellen and Jim are separated as the ship sinks, and Ellen cannot find him – or his body – after her rescue.
Distraught, Ellen strikes a deal with Wyatt Steele, a newspaper reporter with information about Jim’s fate. In exchange for his knowledge, Ellen must give, not only her account of that fateful night, but also the reason why she, sole heiress to the Hardy Stables estate, served as a maid aboard the ocean liner. Though desperate to hide her shameful past, Ellen relents. As she and Steele share stories, Ellen realizes that Jim had his own secrets and a dark side that kept him from her, even before the water pulled him into its icy depths.
While the novel is reminiscent of James Cameron’s Titanic, Pignat chooses not to sensationalize the tragedy of the Empress by focusing solely on its spectacle, instead emphasizing the broader story of Ellen’s life and her resilience in the face of unimaginable loss. Told through flashbacks, journal entries, and letters, Ellen’s narrative moves between past and present like the ebb and flow of water, her lilting style hinting at a gentle Irish brogue. Nicely blending fiction with historical figures and events, Unspeakable is, ultimately, a novel about finding love, losing love, and the difficult decisions made in between.