The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Publisher: Virago
Pages: 288
Year: 2012 (Pb, 3 January 2013)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

The Lifeboat by Charlotte RoganReview
As we approach the centenary of the tragedy of the Titanic’s sinking, there is something rather pertinent and moving about Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat – a novel which presents the story of a group of mostly women and some men who are shipwrecked in a small vessel in 1914 and are adrift. Despite the prayers of a clergyman on board, it is clear that this lifeboat sails out of sight of God. In particular, the novel focuses on the young Grace Winter who, married just ten weeks before the telling of the novel takes place, has been a widow for six. As the novel begins, Grace and her fellow survivors Mrs Grant and Hannah are on trial for their lives, accused of a murder.

The story is told to us here by Grace herself and she is no ordinary witness. She is also a major contributing factor to the success of The Lifeboat as a novel and as a mystery. Grace may be our eyes for the events in the lifeboat but she is also a woman with a vehement desire to survive and while we empathise and feel for her as she recounts those long days lost and barely alive in the boat, we’re fully aware that Grace may be off the boat but her life is still in danger. Her words are intended to save it.

The narrative moves between the days and nights on the lifeboat, events before the disaster that led to it and the aftermath of their rescue. We hear about Grace’s marriage to the wealthy young heir Henry, her deliverance to the lifeboat even though it was full, her devotion for Mr Hardie, the crewman on board the lifeboat who takes charge of their survival, the women who mourn their lost husbands and children and cling on to sanity while sipping saltwater and chewing dried seagull flesh. Then there are the outnumbered men.

There are several reasons to savour The Lifeboat, not least the voice of Grace. Our ambivalence towards her is tempered by our sympathy for her extraordinary and desperate circumstances. Through her we experience other strong survivors, especially Mrs Grant and Hannah, as well as the suffering of some of the weaker individuals in the lifeboat, not all of whom survive. Then there is the sea itself. Matched by a stunning cover, The Lifeboat gives us the sea as a character in itself, populated by scarce fish and seabirds plus its ill, damaged and increasingly insane human victims.

Despite the confines of the boat, The Lifeboat is never dull and despite its tragic subject, it is not without humour. The suffering is accompanied by multiplying Chinese whispers about thefts onboard the liner, rumours about what survivors may be concealing, the reason for Grace’s appearance on the overfull boat and the terrible sight of the abandoned, drowning men and women in the cold seas. Grace is indeed a born survivor and listening to her tell her story, you hang on to every word. It is at times a harrowing tale indeed.

The Lifeboat is Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel. It is also one of Waterstones 11 along with the superb The Snow Child. It is most certainly worth your attention. I’m going to remember it for quite a while.

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