Survival in a lifeboat my sound like a simple plot line, but it astounds in the hands of debut novelist, Charlotte Rogan. In The Lifeboat Grace Winter, age 22, sails from Europe to America with her new husband in order to meet her new mother-on-law. After an explosion on luxury liner, the Empress Alexandra, Grace’s husband Henry secures her a place on a lifeboat. After three weeks in the overcrowded boat, she survives. Upon rescue, she finds herself on trial for murder — another form of survival.
1914. Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Seaman John Hardie takes charge on Lifeboat 14. His maritime experience enables him to adjust to changes in their circumstances. It also gives him the grit to put a boot in the face of a lost soul trying to climb aboard the already dangerously full lifeboat. When he is not giving orders, he remains aloof or expounds on scientific maritime facts and lore.
In this tiny boat adrift in a boundless ocean, the author examines whether murder justifies survival. The owners of mother ship the Empress Alexandra saved money by building lifeboats to hold only eighty percent of their intended capacity. “Capacity 40 persons” says the plaque on Grace’s lifeboat now holding 39 people. Something or someone must give.
Told in the first person by Grace, the survivors’ ordeals and fates are reveled in a series of flashbacks. Lifeboat duties are assigned. Stories told to pass the time become untruths as people “whisper down the lane.” We learn Grace’s constantly changing opinions of other passengers and assessment of their fate. She fills in back story about her relationship with Henry. She is “in the middle of a nothingness that was everything, or everything that mattered.” Conditions worsen. Camaraderie veers toward suspicion. Surprising rivalries and alliances develop. Deprivation and emotional debilitation further weaken any hope for the survivors.
We learn early on that Grace has been married for ten weeks. Did Henry pay for her inclusion in the rescue? What does she know of her husband’s fate? Can Grace come through this experience with her innate belief in man’s goodness intact?
As Rogan’s rich debut novel, The Lifeboat interlaces many layers of petty jealousies, shrouded motives, moral dilemmas, and psychological complexities. What are the boundaries of human civility? How humane are we when pushed to the brink?