The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
Little Brown & Company/2012
Reviewer: Sheri de Grom
The prologue of Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel, The Lifeboat, gives the reader the ending of the story. Grace, the narrator, is awaiting trial for murder. She’s twenty-two years old, has been married for ten weeks, and a widow for over six.
The brief prologue relays an abundance of information that left me no choice but to turn the page and continue reading.
Grace’s narration is one she compiles in journals for her attorneys as they search for an argument to save her life at her murder trial. However, unlike so many recent debut novels, Ms. Rogan does not tell the story in journal format.
Grace and her new husband, Henry Winter, were sailing on the luxury liner the Empress Alexandra, from England to the United States, before World War I began. Henry, a wealthy banker, was manipulated by Grace and married her immediately before they sailed. Grace didn’t care that Henry was engaged to a socialite.
We learn later the lifeboats were rated to hold forty people, but were not built to specifications, making them hazardous.
. . .Pg13[Somewhere out there was my husband Henry, either sitting in a boat beating away people as we were doing or trying to swim to safety and being beaten away himself. It helped to remember that Henry had been forceful in securing me a seat in the boat, and I was sure he would have been just as forceful on his own behalf; but could Henry have acted as Hardie did if his life depended on it? Could I? The idea of Mr. Hardie’s cruelty was something to which my thoughts continue to return—certainly it was horrendous.]. . .
Grace can either spend time obsessing about her misfortune or gain inner strength for survival by thinking Henry might make it to America ahead of her and be waiting to greet her on the docks.
The narrative Grace writes works beautifully for Ms. Rogan in presenting backstory. She returns us to the Empress Alexandra and we meet several characters, several of which have a direct relationship to war profiteering or the explosion on the ship and the tragedy that follows.
Thirty-nine people made it onto the Lifeboat Number Fourteen. Thirty are women; one is a small boy; and the remainders are men. The lopsided crew becomes a metaphor for a closed community with everyone scheming against everyone else.
The Lifeboat covers three weeks of the most horrific experiences one might imagine. The tiny boat is adrift somewhere in the Atlantic and the occupants never know precisely where they are. Their reality: the boat has too many people in it and some must be sacrificed to the sea. The remaining passengers know they don’t have enough to eat or clean water to drink and they’ll still die. They might be rescued but it’s not likely, and no one trusts anyone else.
Along with the high winds and deep swells of the sea, Grace in first person narrative tells the backstory of her wedding and the haste of her marriage to Henry. Once aboard the luxury liner, Grace won’t give in until Henry arranges a wireless message informing his mother that he’s coming home with a wife. After all, his mother believes he’s still marrying the socialite to whom he was engaged.
At sea, in the lifeboat, Grace wonders if Henry really sent a wire to his mother telling her he’d married. He said he had, but now there’s talk the communications system on the luxury liner may have gone down and no one, not even the authorities, knew the ship sunk.
Grace, in retrospect, comprehends the importance of Henry sending the message to his mother. It will be as if they had never married if his mother wasn’t notified. Grace doesn’t have proof of the event and their papers are lost at sea with Henry.
Layers of petty jealousies, seemingly unjust motives, moral quandaries, and psychological complexities develop as the rigorous days and nights at sea pass.
Seaman John Hardie took charge of the lifeboat from the time it was lowered into the water. His maritime experience enables him to adjust to changes in their circumstances. It’s his brutality, complex heathen personality, and demands on individual passengers that cause most everyone on board to turn against him. Yet, he’s often the only one who can save them for one more day.
. . .Pg78[The fish became a symbol of what Hardie could do if he wanted, of what he might do if we would only behave and stop questioning his plan for us. His eventual failure to provide was not the only reason for a growing undercurrent of anger. He continued to predict a change in the weather. He said, “When it comes, ye’ll see for yourselves that there are too many people in the boat,” but we didn’t want to hear it. It made us angry because we didn’t know what we were supposed to do about it, even if what he said was true. Were we supposed to simply fade away like Mrs. Fleming? But these feelings of anger and doubt accumulated gradually.
By day nine, we had nothing to eat and our ration of water was a swallow for each of us. Mr. Hardie assured us we had more water but panic set in. No one believed him.]. . .
Charlotte Rogan examines whether murder justifies survival. Grace becomes a survivalist instead of a protector.
Not since The Perfect Storm by author Sebastian Junger have I had the pleasure of reading words that so magnificently portrayed the ever-changing elements of the sea. Both the eerie calm under a cloudless blue sky and then out—of nowhere—its crashing, slamming waves where death is likely with each breath taken.
The symbolism and metaphors add to the richness of The Lifeboat. The complexities of the human spirit are captured in amazing ways in this debut novel by Charlotte Rogan.
A review by Trisha Ping for Book Page said, “This compelling smart and resonant work is certain to stand as one of the year’s best debuts.” The Lifeboat is literary fiction at its best.
I loved the character studies and pondering the underlying psychological motives of each on Lifeboat Fourteen. What would I do in such a situation? I honestly don’t know.