The Lifeboat – Charlotte Rogan

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The Lifeboat is a first-person account of disaster, desperation and a kind of inevitable depravity. The account is the prison diary of a young woman and most of the events recalled take place within an overcrowded lifeboat crammed with survivors of a sunken ocean liner during World War I. Charlotte Rogan has skillfully turned a clichéd shipwreck story into a tale of good and evil, social disintegration, and the will of the protagonist to save herself.

Grace is the auspicious name of the survivor and she has ample gifts of it throughout the troubled saga of her family’s unravelling, her own determination to create a protected life for herself, her calculated strategy to marry well and her ordeal in the boat. As the days stretch into weeks, people die or cast themselves into the sea, food and water are severely rationed and run out, the plotting, whispers and muttering on the boat turn into open rebellion. Grace tries to sort nightmare from reality–another nightmare.

Was she saved by being handed off into the boat at the last moment by her new husband Henry with a substantial bribe to the seaman who jumped into the boat with her? Did her place in the boat accidentally cost the life of a fellow passenger’s small daughter? Why do the two women who set themselves up against the men in the boat stare at her and murmur to themselves? Why does the seaman who is at home with tides, squalls, compass direction and shipwreck survival skills regard her oddly when he thinks she isn’t looking? And, after the unthinkable occurs, how to tell truth from lies and illusions? Who is sane in the scrap of flotsam with its dying passengers? Who is to blame for what happens?

Very entertaining read, thoughtful and just a good book. Rogan knows her seamanship and she creates a believable world in the overcrowded open boat that rides too low in the water. Grace’s point of view does leave questions unanswered but she is an intelligent observer and the philosophical discussions inspired by the grueling circumstances are endlessly interesting ones.  I push through any number of books that don’t deliver near the satisfaction of this one. The Lifeboat is first-rate storytelling and spending a few hours in the thoughts and memories of Grace Winter is time well-spent.

The Lifeboat: A Novel   Charlotte Rogan | Little, Brown and Company   2012

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2 responses »

    • It’s been a while since I read this but I recall that Grace was en route to meet her mother-in-law whom she was determined to win over. And the family paid for her defense lawyer and got her a good one? Can’t quite remember but I think my takeaway was that Henry’s family was cleaning up a mess, as rich families do, and Grace was the mess. The end trailed off a bit. Clever book for the most part, though.

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