Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel, The Lifeboat, is set in 1914, just two years after the tragic loss of life associated with the sinking of the Titanic. It is likely that the similarity of the fictional situation to the real tragedy will bring the novel to the attention of countless readers who otherwise would have missed it. Unlike what happened with the Titanic survivors, however, Empress Alexandra survivors lucky enough to make it to a lifeboat will not be blessed with a quick pick-up from relatively nearby ships.
Grace Winter, the novel’s narrator, hints at what is to come in the book’s short prologue:
“…along with two other women, named Hannah West and Ursula Grant, I was to stand trial for my life. I was twenty-two years old. I had been married for ten weeks and a widow for over six.”
Grace Winter, an ambitious young woman until recently unsatisfied with her lot in life, is traveling with her wealthy new husband aboard the Empress Alexandra when the ship is sunk by a devastating explosion. Thanks to Henry’s determined efforts, Grace manages to find a place with 38 others on one of the ships lifeboats. As the passengers will soon learn, there are not enough lifeboat seats to accommodate everyone aboard the sinking ship. Just as tragically, some boats are lowered in a panicked rush before taking on a full load, while others are dangerously overfilled. Within hours, it is evident that Grace’s lifeboat is in danger of sinking because of the excess weight it is carrying.
Because Grace recounts her story via a journal she is preparing for her defense lawyer, the book’s tension does not stem from wondering whether anyone will survive the torture of being lost at sea for more than three weeks. From the beginning, it is obvious that there will be survivors - and that murder may play a direct role in deciding which passengers will survive and which will not. The core of The Lifeboat story is what the 39 survivors learn about themselves and their fellow travelers as they are faced with moral decisions that will determine exactly who lives and who dies. What are they willing to do to increase the odds of their own survival, even at the expense of the man or woman sitting next to them in the lifeboat? Some will surprise even themselves.
Charlotte Rogan explores in detail the moral dilemma the passengers face as weather conditions worsen, food and water are exhausted, and it becomes obvious that survival now depends on a willingness to engage in physical and psychological warfare against fellow passengers. Alliances are formed by likeminded passengers, only to be reshaped within hours or days as paranoia becomes the order of the day for those who manage to hang on to their spot aboard the lifeboat.
The Lifeboat, although it has a heartbreaking story to tell, suffers from being presented entirely through the eyes of a single character. Readers will only know as much about Grace’s fellow passengers as she learned about them before the explosion or after being confined with them on the small lifeboat. Not enough character development is offered to make the secondary characters entirely sympathetic or to explain their actions aboard the lifeboat. Perhaps this is Rogan’s way of showing that everyone is capable of this kind of behavior in a confined, life or death situation. The emotional impact of the novel, however, would have been greater were the characters better developed.
This one will, I think, especially appeal to Titanic junkies and fans of the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock movie Lifeboat.