A Million To One – Book Review

Adiba Jaigirdar, author of one of Time’s Best YA books of all time, The Henna Wars, gives Titanic an Ocean’s 8 makeover in a heist for a treasure aboard the infamous ship that sank in the Atlantic many years ago in her latest novel, A Million to One. Perfect for fans of Stalking Jack the Ripper and Girl in the Blue Coat, this high-seas heist is an immersive story that makes readers forget one important detail— the ship sinks.

Here’s the summary…

A thief. An artist. An acrobat. An actress. While Josefa, Emilie, Hinnah, and Violet seemingly don’t have anything in common, they’re united in one goal: stealing the Rubaiyat, a jewel-encrusted book aboard the RMS Titanic that just might be the golden ticket to solving their problems.
But careless mistakes, old grudges, and new romance threaten to jeopardize everything they’ve worked for and put them in incredible danger when tragedy strikes. While the odds of pulling off the heist are slim, the odds of survival are even slimmer . . .

And England, and Ireland, and Scotland, And Wales,
Proved there to the World: Their valor Ne’er fails,
“The women and children first,” Was their cry,
And every one of the Crew, stood by.

-From “The Wreck of the Titanic” by Benjamin Peck Keith

Yes folks, don’t look for any revisionist history here, the ship does in fact, still sink.

Look, if you’re going to write a book about one of the most famous disasters in human history, one that produced one of the biggest and most famous movies of all time, the iceberg preamble and character work must be rock solid. Lucky for us readers, Adiba Jaigirdar excels at both.

But here’s where I’ll correct myself slightly, because A Million to One is no more a “Titanic book” than Die Hard is a “Christmas movie”. No, this book isn’t about sinking ships, it’s about found family, it’s about friendship, it’s about love, and it’s about second chances. It’s about having the courage to take that leap of faith, to put your trust in someone else despite little or no assurance that it will work out, because you both want the same thing, a better life. It’s about women who don’t make decisions based on what the worst people in society think of them. It’s about Josefa, a pickpocket from Spain, Emilie, a Haitian French painter, Violet, an actress from Croatia, and Hinnah, an acrobat from India.

TITANIC FACT: At the time of construction, the Titanic cost $7,500,000 to build.

The premise here is straightforward, as these four suitably skilled women take a ride on the unsinkable ship of dreams to steal a nearly priceless jewel-encrusted book of poetry called the “Rubaiyat”[1] (a real thing btw). Seems simple enough, except for the fact that someone will of course notice something so valuable missing, a variable they think they’ve accounted for, and that forced proximity has appended a past problematic relationship into the equation. But they feel any, and all inherent risk is proportional to the reward and proceed with the task at hand, certainly not accounting for a Force Majeure type of situation, like say, colliding with a giant iceberg.

When we meet the four girls, they are living at a boardinghouse in Dublin which is run by a tough but fair local woman, Matron O’Neill. Every O’Neill guest has their reasons, a story as to how they found themselves stagnate at not quite the end of the road, but pretty damn close. And if one is to make it out of there, manufacture a fresh start, one must be bold, for a leap of faith is sometimes required. Enter Josefa, an up-until-now petty thief who’s as bold as them come, and who longs to be free of society’s promulgated rules. The Titanic represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and is just the thing she needs to accomplish her goals, so, after months of planning, and acquiring (stealing) four Third-Class tickets, well, doći će I naše urijeme!

Her ride-or-die on this heist, and in life, is Violet, a Croatian actress who could charm the pants off just about anyone she meets. Besides Josefa, the only person that matters to Violent in this world is her younger brother Marko, who is about to age-out at an orphanage back home. Being the older sibling, and the only family either one has left, she feels responsible for his well-being and would certainly do all she could to facilitate a happy reunion. Providing the physical prowess that one would require to move freely about the Titanic without being seen, is Hinnah the acrobat, who bears the emotional scars of a traumatic past arriving to Ireland from Karachi, India (later Pakistan). She is currently stuck performing super-human feats at a one-ring circus for dwindling crowds and a foul Ringmaster, having lost contact with any and all family back home. Rounding out the crew is Emilie, perhaps the most lost member of these lost souls. Still searching for inspiration, a creative spark that will reignite her artistic calling after the death of her father, Emilie is alone and in desperate need of a muse. This bolt of lightning shows up in the form of Josefa, who wants to put her creative skills to work, forging documents, and making a passable replica of the Rubaiyat. Like the others, Emilie is going it alone, with her father gone and never having explored her roots in Haiti, she’s in desperate need of a found family.

TITANIC FACT: Titanic was equipped to carry 64 lifeboats, but only 20 were loaded.

As a genre, heist stories are fairly commonplace in all forms of media, and one thread that runs throughout every single one of them, is that the success or failure of the heist absolutely relies on the team working together. Now, “working together” and “getting along” are two different things, and typically these groups are filled with egos and strong personalities, resulting in occasional head-butting, A Million to One is no different. And as with any leap of faith scenario, the level of trust they have in each other will determine the end result. Unsurprisingly Adiba does a wonderful job here, balancing four POVs deftly, carefully bending their inter-personal relationships without them ever breaking. Now, this doesn’t mean they are successful necessarily, the Titanic is a huge ship with so many moving pieces, not to mention security, there’s just no way to account for all of them, and the current owners of the Rubaiyat aren’t going to just let them have it. But whether they are successful or not, their reliance on each other not only as cogs in Josefa’s scheme, but as sisters (figuratively speaking) is very much at the heart of this story. And Yuri is Adiba’s specialty, understanding all too well the power and beauty of female relationships, as friends, co-conspirators, or otherwise.

Okay, to say Adiba uses dramatic irony effectively would be underselling dramatic irony as these characters and all else onboard are sailing (sorry) towards unknowable, and sadly avoidable, historical relevance. This device is tricky, especially in a historically occurring impending doom type of catastrophic situation where all or none of these women could survive. This is where Adiba has full authority, embracing a bit of a hedonistic approach as well, keeping their fates ambiguous until the very end. This is of course the essence of the story and the impetus for which Adiba probably put pen to paper to begin with, unless she’s just a secret freightliner obsessed historical fanatic.

A fun side effect is that almost immediately I started looking up the numbers and doing the math, trying to figure out the percentages, trying to figure out what the odds were that all four of our lead characters would/could survive the inevitable. For example, we know roughly 37% of all passengers survived, 61% of them being First-Class. We know that of the 425 women on board, passengers and crew, roughly 316 of them survived, that’s 74%. And this probably goes without saying, but we know that the lower in Class you go, the less survivors there were, with only 24% of the Third-Class passengers making it. There’s plenty more datum to parse through but you get the point, that the odds of all four of these women surviving would be better than average if they were port side First-Class, less if they find themselves keeping company with the steerage. And this is of course all dependent on them making it on board one of the only 20 lifeboats that were on the ship, which even at full capacity, only had enough room for 53% of those on the Titanic that night.

TITANIC FACT: Although the ship could carry 3,547 people, only 2,223 passengers and crew were on board.

There’s so many statistics involved with the Titanic, big numbers create big numbers after all, and if you’re like me, as you’re making your way through the story, facing an ever-dwindling page count, the direness of the situation starts to set in. And right away Adiba wants you to be aware of time, with not so subtle dated/timed epigraphs reminding you that we’re on the clock. Indeed, as the countdown ticks away, each stroke of the hand bringing us, and them, closer and closer to tragedy, cumulative storytelling structures tells you in your heart of hearts that not all four of these girls will see the sun rise on April 15, 1912. Is that a sad premise? You bet your ass it is, and this sadness is a dark cloud that hangs over the events of the book and feels almost inescapable, thanks in no small part to the book’s dedication, as Adiba nobly pays her respects to those souls, the ones we’ve lost the last few years.

Most historical accounts would have you believe that social classism and gender inequality were the predominant and/or only stratifications onboard the ship of dreams. And while it’s certainly true, that your station in life was a deterministic factor in your fate, the lower the Class, the lower the chances you made it to a lifeboat, there is another group whose odds fall below even that. Because social, economic, and status aside, even those with milky-white skin in the steerage department stood a much better chance of survival than those who couldn’t speak English and/or had colored skin. It’s impossible to overlook the intersectionality between people of color and their station in life, and that the comparative few who were aboard would most likely be found among the steerage.

And so, unless you read books without looking at the cover first, you’ve likely noticed the wonderful diversity on the cover of A Million to One. And even though any darker-skinned passengers were simply referred to as “Italians” by crew members, this is simply and obviously not the case. Any ignorance on the part of the crew and First-Class passengers is unsurprising however as it’s also true that Third-Class ticketholders were (are) usually billeted as immigrants, refugees, and refuse, reduced to dark complexed foreigners. Two of Adiba’s four leads (Emilie/Hinnah) have dark skin and I can’t help but think Emilie’s Haitian roots are homage to the ships only passenger of African descent, Joseph Philippe Lemercier Larochce. But while 50% of this cover is non-white, the makeup of the overall passenger list was a much, much lower number. By most accounts, there were roughly 165 Arab passengers, along with 8 Chinese, and 1 Japanese passenger, accounting for roughly 8% of the total amount. I hate to be cynical, but even during an event as chaotic as a giant freightliner sinking in the middle of the Atlantic; the likelihood of a person of color making it one of the 20 lifeboats ahead of a white-skinned passenger was probably slim to none.

TITANIC FACT: The ship took 2 hours and 40 minutes (160 minutes) to sink after it struck the iceberg.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Okay, now I want you to forget almost everything I’ve said to this point, because these women, these people who lived and who died, aren’t just numbers, and we shouldn’t reduce them to a statistic, that does them a disservice. They were friends, they were family, they were lovers. They were sisters, they were brothers, they were important to someone, somewhere. And the best compliment I can give Adiba here is that she makes you give a shit about all of them in some way, equally. And ultimately, who lives and who dies is immaterial, unimportant, because for these four girls, they get to experience true freedom, to choose how they live, albeit for a short time.

A catastrophe like the Titanic is fertile ground for moments of unrequited heroics, acts of sublime courage and grace as many on board were knowingly facing their final moments on this earth. I can’t say who does what obviously, but when the ship does in fact start to sink, Adiba provides plenty of opportunities for these four to give unto others. And that’s where Adiba saves her best till the end, cranking her writing up to an eleven, balancing that great character work we’ve seen throughout the book with an anxiety ridden and tension filled banger of a third act. Oh, and good luck not trying to head canon one or two of these women into the background of the film as Jack and Rose are doing their thing.

A Million to One is out now, click HERE to order a copy!

About the Author

Adiba Jaigirdar is the award-winning, critically-acclaimed and bestselling author of The Henna Wars, Hani & Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, and A Million to One. A Bangladeshi/Irish writer and former teacher, she has an MA in Postcolonial Studies from the University of Kent, England and a BA in English and History from UCD, Ireland. She is the winner of the YA book prize 2022, the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Awards 2021, and was a finalist for the 2022 Lambda Literary awards. All of her writing is aided by tea, and a healthy dose of Janelle Monáe and Hayley Kiyoko. When not writing, she is probably ranting about the ills of colonialism, playing video games, or expanding her overflowing lipstick collection.

While there are a seemingly endless number of resources concerning the SMS Titanic, and there is most definitely a small +/- concerning any percentages used, the vast majority of my information came from www.icyousee.org, Wikipedia, and www.middleeastmonitor.com.

[1] Also lost in the tragedy was a priceless copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam which had been purchased by a Jewish investor in New York City. The book had 1,051 semi-precious stones set in 18-carat gold, 5,000 separate pieces of colored leather and 100 square feet of 22-carat gold leaf in the tooling. www.middleeastmonitor.com

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