Book Reviews

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan – life or death questions

Cover image of The Lifeboat, a tense novel about survival after a liner explodes

In Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel, a disparate group of passengers from a luxury ocean liner are squashed in a small lifeboat adrift in a mid Atlantic.

As you’d expect, a large part of The Lifeboat features tales of endurance against the elements and hostilities between the survivors.  But as the 39 castaways see hopes of an early rescue fade, their struggle for survival takes on a far more menacing aspect. For some of them to survive, some of them must die.

Who gets to live in those circumstances?  Who deserves to die?  And who has the right to make those decisions?  Should the men in the boat sacrifice themselves for the female survivors? Those questions lie at the heart of this novel.

The Lifeboat is an extraordinarily intense narrative that unflinchingly examines the individual’s will to survive. It’s a narrative told through the eyes of one person in the boat, the just married twenty-two-year-old Grace Winter. She and her rich banker husband Henry are onboard the luxury liner  Empress Alexandra as it makes its way to New York in 1914 when it sinks after a mysterious explosion. Henry dies but Grace manages to squeeze into an already-overloaded lifeboat minutes before it pushes away from the wreckage, ignoring the screams of other passengers who are fighting to stay afloat in the icy waters.

Against all the odds, some passengers from Lifeboat 14 do survive. I’m not giving away any spoilers here because the book actually opens with Grace on trial for murder. Her account of almost three weeks at sea is a retrospective journal written on the advice of her defence lawyer. “You survived out there in the boat, now you have to survive in here,” says her lawyer. “And don’t make the mistake of thinking the situation is any different now.”

How much can we trust her version of events which culminate in the murder of Captain Hardie, the only trained sailor on Lifeboat 14?

We know she is a single-minded woman; one of life’s natural survivors (her surname may be a hint to her true character). Even her marriage was the result of a determined effort to track down and marry a wealthy young man so she wouldn’t face a life of poverty after  her father’s bankruptcy and suicide. In the lifeboat she is similarly astute; carefully navigating the politics over who sits where, finely judging the nature of each passenger and questioning the Captain’s account of what happened on the Empress Alexandra.

Now she faces another fight for her life:

 “You survived out there in the boat, now you have to survive in here,” says her lawyer. “And don’t make the mistake of thinking the situation is any different now.”

Whether she convinces the jury of her innocence is something you’ll have to read the book to discover. But she doesn’t convince her fellow passengers  “You’re not as weak as you pretend to be,” hisses her co-defendent Hannah at one point during the trial.

Innocent or guilty,  in Grace Winter, Charlotte Rogan has created a character of tremendous psychological power; a character whose true nature remains a mystery to the end.

The Lifeboat is a tremendous read. A novel definitely not to be missed.

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan: EndNotes

The Lifeboat was published in paperback by Virago in the UK in 2013. It was nominated for the Guardian first book award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Charlotte Rogan had a variety of jobs after graduating from Princeton University in 1975. She gave up roles in architecture and engineering, to teach herself to write. The Lifeboat, her debut novel, was inspired by 19th-century criminal law cases in which survivors of shipwrecks were tried for their actions at sea, and enhanced by reminiscences from her childhood in a family of sailors. Her second book, Now & Again, was published in 2016 and relates a tale of a female secretary who discovers a high level at the munitions plant where she works.

This review was posted originally in 2013. This updated version incorporates biographical information about the author and an updated image of the book cover. Formatting has been changed to improve readability.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

22 thoughts on “The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan – life or death questions

  • I ordered this book as soon as it was released… and I still haven’t read it! Maybe one for the 20 Books of Summer list 🙂

  • The fact that this opens with a trial sounds very interesting! Thanks for the review, I will have to add this to my TBR list!

    • It was an interesting approach. Knowing that she survived took some of the tension away but then, as you read the book and get to learn how that happened , you have the tension of wondering whether she was guilty after all..

  • I haven’t read this book but do remember a movie I saw many years ago that mirrors this story.(Sorry I can’t remember title or actors) One of the most harrowing scenes I do remember is that of an elderly woman in the lifeboat being forced to put her little dog overboard. If I remember rightly, the officer on board the lifeboat was the one tried once the survivors reached land.Does anyone know of this film?

  • I think you got a lot more out of reading this book that I did, Karen. A friend chose it for our book group a few years ago, and while it prompted a lively discussion, it wasn’t my sort of novel. Maybe I’m being a little harsh here, but some of us felt as if it had been written primarily with the book-group audience in mind – an issues-driven book in which moral and ethical choices have to be made, thereby prompting a debate…

    • It’s a while since I read the book so I don’t remember too many details but I don’t recall getting the feeling at the time that it had been written to a plan as it were. I do understand why that would be off putting though. I have a similar issue with a number of contemporary novels that seem to have been written with one eye on a film adaptation.

  • I remember huge amounts of hype around this when it was first published. Not unusual, I know, but it sounds as if it actually lived up to all that brouhaha.

    • It did get quite a number of positive reviews. Her follow up doesn’t seem to have gone down so well though.

  • Pingback: Top ten Tuesday: book club recommendations | BookerTalk

  • I have this on home from the library right now so I’m glad to hear it’s good. I read Jamrach’s Menagerie recently and loved it, particularly after the shipwreck, so I’m looking forward to this one.

    • You’re the third person Christina to say ‘if you liked Lifeboat, you should read Jamrach’s Menagerie’. Are you all ganging up on me??

    • They did become rather savage like as time moved on even if a few of the women were trying to keep their hair straight…

  • Have you read ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’, which has something of the same premise behind it? It cropped up on one of my book group lists last year and I don’t think that I can face another such tale just yet, but I’ll make a note and think about it when I’m feeling stronger.

    • I hadn’t heard of this book Alex so did some quick search. The Guardian review had this wonderful description:

      But beyond the blood, brine and slime that swills down the Ratcliffe Highway, above the stench of the rotting fruit and vegetables and the excrement of a thousand animals, lies a rather subtler story of the hazy line between camaraderie and rivalry and of the bonds both forged and broken in extreme adversity.

      Not sure it will be quite my thing though – I have an odd aversion to stories with animals ……

  • This is quite high up on my library list (although judging by the wait times I’m not alone!)… Hopefully it will arrive just before I have a day off, because it sounds as if it’s very much an all-in-one-go gulp of a read?

    • Actually I think its a book that’s best taken slowly because there is a lot of reading between the lines so having some breathing space between reads let it sink in better for me.

      Karen Heenan-Davies


  • I’ve wanted to read this for a while, not yet managed to get hold of a copy despite my ridiculous bouts of book buying.

    • Have you tried the library? I got mine as an e book otherwise I would send it to you

      Sent from my iPad


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