The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (Reagan Arthur Books; 288 pages; $24.99).
The sea can be unforgiving, mysterious, dangerous, and even brutal. The ocean can cool and renew us, yet it also has the power to kill. The water may look inviting, but that same liquid can be deceiving. Curiously, the sea can be a metaphor for life. Sometimes it’s sink or swim. Sometimes we must dogpaddle to stay afloat. Sometimes we are in danger of going under.
Sometimes we must make horrible choices in order to survive. Such is the case in Charlotte Rogan’s gripping debut The Lifeboat. The phrase “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” never rang truer. Rogan’s main character, Grace Winter, despite her faults, is one of the strongest female characters I have encountered in a long time.
Grace manages to live through an excruciating ordeal, one in which many die. The Lifeboat is chilling as Grace and others must struggle and sacrifice in order to survive.
When Rogan introduces us to Grace, she is widow on trial, along with two other women, for murder. Her lawyers urge Grace to write an account of what occurred. She reluctantly agrees and begins a diary. Her narrative is the basis for Rogan’s story.
While crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1914, there is an explosion on board the Empress Alexandra. People shove others out of the way to get on lifeboats. Grace’s new husband, Henry, forces her onto Lifeboat 14, but he does not follow. Rogan draws eerily similar comparisons to Titanic, yet this is no love story. Far from it.
Grace recalls, “There were bodies floating in the water, too, and living people clung to the wreckage….” A toddler reaches out to her, but neither Grace nor any of the others save the child. This is the first instance where the reader notices how cold and calculating Grace really is. There is a detachment to her. Perhaps it is her lack of emotion that helps her survive.
Many people are alive in the water. Three swimmers approach the boat. On the orders of an officer from the ship, Mr. Hardie, the oarsmen beat the men to death with the oars. It is truly every man for himself. The simple, hard fact is that “we could not save everybody and save ourselves.”
Mr. Hardie emerges as leader. This makes sense given he knows the water. Grace has confidence in his abilities. In her eyes, Mr. Hardie “knew about this world of water” and “spoke its language.” The less she understands his “rough seaman’s voice,” “the greater the possibility” that the sea understands him. Out of necessity, Mr. Hardie makes some tough decisions. Grace, though, perseveres in her support for him, or at least at first.
Because the boat is taking on water, it, in all likelihood, will sink. The lifeboat supposedly has a capacity of 39 people and holds 38. In actuality, the lifeboat is capable of holding much less than 39 people.
The lifeboat is overcrowded, a fact that is obvious to everyone. Mr. Hardie asks for volunteers. Several men and women jump out and into the sea to their deaths. Soon, Mr. Hardie’s actions are questioned, especially by two women, Mrs. Grant and Hannah. Mrs. Grant is appalled when Mr. Hardie does not turn back for the child. She calls him a brute. Just like that, Grace explains, “Mrs. Grant was branded a humanitarian and Hardie a fiend.”
A power struggle unfolds as food and water, necessities for survival, are hard to come by. Grace’s allegiance to Mr. Hardie teeters. It becomes obvious that she will support whoever suits her needs best. She will cheer whoever has the advantage. Clearly, Grace is interested only in saving herself.
The situation on the lifeboat grows bleaker. At one point, a flock of birds falls dead into the lifeboat. Both men and women eat the birds and gnaw the bones until they are bare of meat. Blood runs down their chins. Such a thing is implausible to me. I wonder if this might be a veiled reference to cannibalism. Perhaps the reality of the situation is such that Grace is unwilling and unable to call it what it truly is.
You just cannot trust Grace; she is definitely an unreliable narrator. She often tells half-truths and even lies. “It’s my experience that we can come up with five reasons why something happened, and the truth will always be the sixth,” she confides. If this is part of her nature or if it is a result of the tragedy, Rogan chooses not to reveal. It is through the eyes of the other survivors that Grace comes across as callous and manipulative. Her cold and calculating nature is nothing new, however, as Rogan reveals. Grace used these same tactics to lure her husband from another woman. If you guess he came from money, you are correct.
Rogan plays with Grace’s memory and history in this novel. When the others discount a memory on the stand, she emphatically denies what they say. Grace’s memory and history are at odds. Grace also retreats into herself on the lifeboat. She withdraws into her own mind to what she calls the “Winter Palace.” Her retreat may partly explain why she has no recollection of certain events. Then again, maybe it is her plan all along. One thing is certain, though: over time, the situation on the lifeboat grows more tenuous and more perilous.
The power struggle between Mr. Hardie and Mrs. Grant and Hannah comes to a head. Grace plays a major role in this battle, which is the reason she is on trial. Rogan writes this with suspense.
It is interesting that three women are on trial. If circumstances had been different, I do not feel Mr. Hardie would be accused of murder. It is as if, in 1914 at least, a woman’s place was to create, sustain, and nurture life. Not take it. People expect a man to fight, even defend himself if the scenario demands. Why shouldn’t the same be true for a woman?
A lifeboat takes on ironic meanings in Rogan’s novel. Lifeboats are lifesaving vessels. They are places of refuge and salvation. In this book, though, the lifeboat takes on a whole different sense. It becomes a deathtrap.
I recommend The Lifeboat to anyone who is fascinated with Titanic. I also would suggest the novel for those who enjoy Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I do want to warn you that there is no romance, no magic here. The Lifeboat is sometimes bloody, sometimes chilling, and always shocking. It will literally give you goosebumps.
More than anything, Grace Winter is a survivor, and you must respect her for having the will to save herself. Grace never gives up. Whether you are at sea or navigating the shark-infested waters of life, Grace can teach us all something. Sometimes we all have to struggle in order to get through this life.