The premise to The Lifeboat is a simple one. We meet Grace who has spent three weeks drifting in the Atlantic ocean with 38 other people in a lifeboat. We join her story as she is on trial for murder after the lifeboat was rescued minus many of the original survivors. Grace has been married for ten weeks and a widow for six as her husband perished on the Empress Alexandra. That’s it, really. But from such a simple idea has blossomed a wondrously detailed and conflicting story.
The first thing that jumps to mind when reading The Lifeboat is comparisons to Lord of the Flies. We see the 39 survivors of a disaster at sea floating around rather amiably to begin with. Grace, as the narrator, tells us about her companions and as the story proceeds things become rather heated between the survivors. Suddenly there are arguments and more tragedy builds leaving the reader asking questions of both the characters and themselves.
To go into great detail about the people in the boat would give away the minutia that builds towards the climax of the book and its overall power. Suffice to say that conflicts break out and suddenly death is knocking at the survivors’ doors. We constantly flit back and forth between the time in the boat and Grace’s past.
Charlotte Rogan’s writing is exquisite and full to bursting with suspense and tension. She manages to create the same sense of suspense as the traditional thrillers of old where nobody can be trusted and everyone is out to get you. The paranoia running through the lifeboat is contagious as the reader never knows what will be revealed next. Rogan also challenges the audience to questions themselves as they read Grace’s story.
The Lifeboat often broaches several subjects that would have been rife in the early 20th century, such as sexism, classism and humanity’s morals and ethics. This would be a perfect book for a book club as there is so much to dissect from rivalries between the female group on the boat as they butt heads with the men as to the best way to survive or the question of how far you would go to survive yourself.
Mr Hardie becomes a natural leader in the lifeboat and this doesn’t sit well with Mrs Grant and her close knit group. Very quickly they are undermining each other and alluding to disaster for others if either person’s ideas are followed. Throughout the novel we have the verbal battles in the lifeboat which mirror those that are taking place in the courtroom, too. This is of course the other side to the story and told in tandem. Both aspects are fantastic and fill in both Grace’s time at sea and her past.
Grace is an awkward character and one whose motives are never entirely clear. She is certainly hard to like but endears herself to the reader nevertheless. By the end of the book I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about her and the decisions she made which, of course, leads me to wonder just what people would do if placed in such a predicament.
I adored ever page of Rogan’s debut and have waited several months to blog about my thoughts. Then when I do I realise that I don’t want to spoil it for anyone and can only really expose small snippets of the plot. Regardless I was bowled over and find myself wanting to read it again to enjoy the world that Rogan created and decide finally whether Grace was who I believed she was. I still can’t believe this is Rogan’s debut, she has written a novel that many long established writers will be a little envious of.
Published by Virago. This book was kindly sent from the publisher. It is also feature in this year’s Waterstones 11.