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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.

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