In The Lifeboat, author Charlotte Rogan explores the actions of a group of people who are forced to survive on a small lifeboat and the repercussions of this event. The premise seems simple enough, but in the dexterous hands of Rogan, the story takes on a larger life that invites readers to join in on this fascinating journey.
The year is 1914, and newly wed Grace is traveling with her husband, Henry, across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the luxurious ocean liner, The Empress Alexandra. After a sudden explosion, the passengers frantically evacuate the sinking ship, doing whatever it takes to secure a spot in a lifeboat. As Lifeboat 14 begins its descent into the ocean, it stops just long enough for Henry to put Grace and seaman John Hardie onto the boat. Hardie, who clearly has the most experience with all things nautical, takes lead of the small boat, navigating through the debris, and coldly passing other passengers who struggle to stay afloat in the sea. Hardie is the only one aboard the lifeboat who understands that the small vessel is already overcrowded and to take in even one more passenger would be suicide.
As the days pass, the passengers all follow the lead of Hardie, who has assigned tasks for each of the evacuees. They all seem to believe that despite their misfortune, help will arrive soon. After several days, the solitude of the sea begins to take its toll on the passengers. Hunger and thirst muddy their minds, a looming storm threatens to sink their boat, and different opinions threaten to tear apart the unified effort of the passengers.
The novel is told from the point of view of Grace who is writing a journal of her time on the lifeboat. We learn, through many flashbacks, that Grace is currently on trial for murder. As the novel progresses, we gain further insights into the events that took place on the boat, and are forced to face the question of how far a person should go to further their survival.
Being the debut novel from Rogan, I was very impressed with the strength and clarity of her story telling. The suspense of both the struggle to survive in the ocean and to clear her name in a murder trial kept the pages turning and my attention fully held. Rogan descriptions offer subtle glimpses into human nature and the desire to live. Despite the fantastic build up, I felt a bit let down by the ending. It seemed as if these philosophical ideas about survival were leading to some kind of revelation. Instead we get a resolution to the plot with no emotional punch. That being said, I think this novel is worth the read for that build up alone. Perhaps the lack of a real answer to the questions that come up, in this situation, perfectly captures the reality of the event. Either way, this novel forced me to conjure ideas about life, death, and the will to survive.