This is my review of The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan.
This opens with Grace Winter on trial for some unspecified crime on board a lifeboat after the sinking of a luxury liner en route from England to the States in 1914. We expect murder at least and possibly cannibalism. Since a plea of insanity may be the best option, Grace is asked by her lawyers to write a detailed account of events on Lifeboat 14. This is a good literary device, although it requires the reader to suspend disbelief that a recent survivor of a prolonged trauma would be capable of producing such a coherent and analytical record – Grace may of course be an unreliable narrator.
Charlotte Rogan is very ambitious in her decision to interweave Grace’s recollections of events on Lifeboat 14 with those of her earlier life, aboard the ship before it sank, and details of the trial afterwards. This courts the risk of defusing moments of high drama and the effects of the oppressive hardship on the lifeboat, day after day, as well as that of confusing the reader. In the event, I found the gradual revelation of events intriguing, even if it was disappointing to find some threads unresolved rather than somehow woven into the denouement.
I agree with reviewers who feel that the full horror of the experience is at times underplayed, but the author succeeds in showing the changing relationships between the passengers, the shifting power play, the way gossip morphs into facts which can be used to depose a failing leader. Although these issues could have been developed more fully, Rogan prompts us to reflect on what makes a survivor, the extent to which the normal codes by which we live are a veneer, the situations in which killing some people to save a large number overall could ever be justified.
I found this book a page turner, despite reservations that at the most dramatic points, or when discussing complex philosophical points, the prose, although clear and accessible, does not seem quite equal to the task, if you set the bar at a high level. I did not mind Grace’s rather pragmatic, analytical approach nor the lack of the kind of crazy, poetical fantasy one finds in the lifeboat of “Jamrach’s Menagerie” since Grace’s thinking represents that of a “born survivor”. This is intimated by her honest admission that, after the financial ruin of her husband, she planned the seduction of the wealthy Henry Winter away from his long-term fiancée to marry her instead.
I felt that the quality of the writing tails off a little in the final chapters which seem a little too disjointed. The book might have benefited from being longer to give more scope to develop its complex themes, or perhaps it would have been enough to work more on the prose in some key chapters.
As a first novel, this is very impressive. For plot and insight, this book scores highly and the prose is just adequate to sustain these.