One From the Archive: ‘The Lifeboat’ by Charlotte Rogan ****

First published in March 2012.

The prologue of The Lifeboat opens with the character of Grace Winter who has spent the previous two weeks in prison pending trial. She is twenty two years old, ‘married for ten weeks and a widow for over six’, and is standing trial with two other women – Hannah West and Ursula Grant. Those around her in the prison environment think that she is unstable.

Part One then travels back in time to Lifeboat 14, adrift at sea. This was one of the last boats to launch after the transatlantic liner, the Empress Alexandra, suffered an explosion en route to New York City. The Lifeboat is set in 1914, just weeks after the turbulent storm of a brewing war has erupted in Europe. Grace has been separated from her new husband Henry in the turmoil which follows the explosion. He insisted that she should be given a seat on one of the departing lifeboats and that he would follow after her.

The novel does not focus on Henry for the most part. Instead, other characters are pivotal in the novel, particularly those who are in the lifeboat. It is filled with people from all walks of life – a Colonel, a deacon, the privileged and the not-so. These include ‘staunchly determined’ crew member John Hardie, the ‘sturdy’ Miss Grant, ‘frail’ Mr Turner and Mrs Forester, ‘a silent woman with wary eyes’. There are people of many different nationalities – German, Spanish, Swedish and Italian to name but a few. Several of the foreign women are unable to communicate with those around them due to the language barrier, and they consequently become an isolated community upon the already isolated lifeboat.

Rules are set in place which all must adhere to, and they soon have to assist in the duties which befall them, regardless of their class or stature. The strongest are placed upon a ‘duty roster’ and have to take turns rowing the lifeboat and sharing their allotted time in the divided sections of the boat. They soon become intent upon protecting one another and work as a team to complete tasks.

Grace herself is used to the many luxuries which life affords to the wealthy. Quite soon, she is one of the few in the lifeboat who feels hopeful about their situation. As a character, she seems cold at times and void of compassion for those around her. She does not worry about her husband or what may have befallen him. She comes across as spoilt, stubborn and vain in the flashbacks which allude to her past, and she is therefore not a wholly likeable character.

Echoes of the Titanic can be seen throughout. There are not enough lifeboats available for the capacity of people needing them, the first-class passengers gain priority over lower class women and children, and it is clear that privileges are able to be bought, even in a time of such unforeseen upheaval. Tensions are heightened, personalities clash and the smallest of acts takes on the utmost importance. As one would expect with no respite from those around you, the novel is filled with petty squabbles and resentments, blame and hatred. There are sinister undercurrents throughout, as well as growing fear, conspiracies and betrayals.

The first person narrative perspective, seen through the eyes of privileged Grace, is absorbing from the outset. Her voice seems simple in its premise – we, as the audience, can only hear what Grace hears and see what she sees. Whilst this would only serve to weaken the majority of novels, it works incredibly well in The Lifeboat and greatly intrigues the reader. Some of the dialogue throughout is paraphrased, a technique which works well. The situation which Grace finds herself in does not lose any of the horror which the atmosphere and circumstances hold. We do not find out whom Grace has murdered until over two-thirds of the way through The Lifeboat. Instead, we are drip-fed her story and are able to feel some compassion for her and can form some understanding of her actions.

Rogan excels at her descriptions, particularly those which portray the unfolding disaster and the desolation which follows the aftermath of the explosion. The historical information which she includes really helps to set the scene. The technical vocabulary and details relating to boats and the sea are evidently well-researched. Rogan seems incredibly sure of the facts which she includes, and her writing exudes confidence as a result. The chapters are broken up into days and nights which works well to mark the passage of time spent on the lifeboat. The pace of the novel is perfect. A few of the sentences did seem a little clumsy merely due to their length, but, as a whole, The Lifeboat was very well written.

The Lifeboat is Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel, which was selected for the Waterstone’s 11 of 2012. It is a book which is incredibly sad in places. The reader expects some of the pitfalls which occur, but does not know when they will arrive. The premise of the novel – that such a story can be sustained and keep the attention of the reader whilst occurring only in on one small vessel – is incredibly interesting and is certainly done justice by the author.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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