It's 1914 and newlywed Grace Winter is travelling to New York on board the Empress Alexandra when it begins to sink. Her husband, Henry, manages to secure a place for her on a lifeboat that is already over capacity. As the days pass and those on board the lifeboat wait to be rescued, they come to the realisation that for anyone to live, some of them will have to die. The passengers break into groups and malicious gossip starts to spread as everyone tries desperately to save themselves at the expense of others. Grace has to decide which dominant personality she will support - Hardie, a sailor, or the powerful Mrs Grant, who already has the backing of all the women on board. Grace ends up on trial for murder in New York, but did she commit the crime?
I thoroughly enjoyed The Lifeboat and sped through it in just two days. It's a short, tightly paced novel where not a word is wasted. I tend to enjoy books that examine human nature in times of difficulty, so it was fascinating to see how the passengers changed as the threat to their survival increased. We may all think of ourselves as considerate and humane, but no one truly knows how they will react in a situation like this until it happens and for some of the passengers, the veneer of civilisation was stripped away completely. It became about power politics, about being in a group of passengers that could command power over everyone else. Of course, the view of humanity wasn't completely bleak, but it was the most survival-minded that lived long enough to be rescued.
Rogan's writing was simple but effective. I appreciated that she dove straight into the story rather than filling the first few chapters with background about Grace. Starting with Grace in jail was a good hook, it made me want to read on to find out whether she deserved to be there or not. I also liked how Rogan made Grace an unreliable narrator; the story is set up as though you are reading her diary, but there are quite a few gaps and errors in her account that are contested by other passengers later on. If anything, I wanted to see this theme further developed - I wanted it made very clear that Grace was not to be trusted and I wanted some closure as to who exactly was telling the truth at the end.
One criticism I will make of this book is that it was a bit tame. Maybe it's because I've read Jamrach's Menagerie recently, which also deals with survival after a shipwreck, but Rogan seems to shy away from what survival would actually entail. Grace complains of hunger and weakness but we never really feel the desperation and despair of the lifeboat passengers. I was expecting things to get a lot more grim than they did before the survivors were rescued. Jamrach's Menagerie was a bold, direct look at survival at all costs, The Lifeboat was more polite and more focused on the moral implications and decisions rather than the physicality of surviving. Out of the two, I preferred Jamrach's Menagerie although I still enjoyed The Lifeboat.
Overall, I found The Lifeboat to be an impressive debut novel and I'll be looking out for the next book that Charlotte Rogan writes.
First Published: 2012
Score: 4 out of 5