The Lifeboat – Charlotte Rogan

If you are a long time follower of this blog, or listen to The Readers Podcast, then you will know that there is one thing in books I really don’t like, and that is boats. I don’t like them off the page, it’s all that expanse and silence – it irks me plus all the space below you fills me with a nervous dread, and in my head a book on a boat can’t really do very much. You sail along, possibly something awful happens and you sail on again till you sink, reach a shore or get saved. Boats to my mind equal boredom, and I don’t want that in a book. Yet occasionally a book comes along that completely flips your thoughts on your own book bias and you are enthralled. Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel ‘The Lifeboat’ is such a book and joins Carol Birch’s ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ as a book I utterly loved set on a boat, though they are quite different stories.

Virago Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In 1914 the Empress Alexandra, one of the world’s most desirable transatlantic liners suffers some kind of explosion and sinks. Somehow some of the passengers make it onto ‘Lifeboat 14’ and against all odds some of these people survive. Yet no sooner are they saved than they are put on trial for the culpability of the deaths of those passengers who didn’t make it. One such woman is recently married and now recently widowed Grace Winter, and through her trial, and her diary of the 21 days lost at sea, we are discover what really happened on that boat (so I haven’t given away any spoilers there), or at least we think we might.

The very things that I think make books set on boats a bore actually become some of the things that I liked so much about ‘The Lifeboat’. Grace and her fellow passengers, with so much expanse on the horizon and so much endless depth below them, are fearful, vulnerable, hungry and bored – this leads to an incredibly enclosed setting and as the hunger, fear and boredom rise so do the mental strains and characters change, or in some cases true characters show through. You start with unity, but then someone must divide and rule.

‘We were in similar circumstances, after all, and an unspoken etiquette was arising where we would not look the beast of physical necessity in the eye. We would ignore it, we would dare it to claw apart our sense of decorum, we would preserve civility even in the face of a disaster that had almost killed us and that might kill us yet.’

I think ‘The Lifeboat’ is one of the most brilliant fictional takes on ‘mental warfare’ and how people change under certain circumstances that I have come across in a very long time, especially from a modern writer. Dare I say there was something rather Daphne Du Maurier-like about the darkness that develops? What I won’t say is anything about the other characters (apart from the fact I was scared of Mrs Grant) because I don’t want to give anything away, but Rogan creates a fascinating psychological game with them all, and with Grace herself Rogan pulls the trump card.

One of the things that I most enjoyed about ‘The Lifeboat’ was Grace’s voice; she is at once incredibly innocent and yet will suddenly come out with statements that make you wonder if there is a much more cunning streak lying in the depths of her persona. Rogan uses this device masterfully, as we read on and see how Grace reacts to everything you start to wonder how responsible for all that follows she may or may not be. There is also the fact that as Rogan weaves some of Grace’s life before embarking on the Empress Alexandra but nothing really before her marriage, there is an ambiguity there. I like a good unreliable narrator and Grace is certainly up there with Harriet Baxter in ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris in terms of a character you like because she’s slightly barbed and yet you are never sure you really trust. A glimpse of something dark appears and yet is immediately erased and you question yourself as well as your protagonist. Just how did Grace survive, luck or something else?

‘I am trying to be honest. In memory, I can feel a tug at my heartstrings as I think of Mary Ann. She was frail and beautiful. Her engagement diamond slipped uselessly around on her thin finger. The indigo veins on her wrist looked like delicate calligraphy on the white parchment of her skin. In other circumstances we might have been real friends, but there in the boat, I had no sympathy for her. She was weak, unlikely to survive or to be of use in prolonging the lives of others.’

I was completely won over by ‘The Lifeboat’, enthralled in fact, so much so that would you believe it… I wanted more! At a deceptive 288 pages Rogan manages to pack in so much in terms of plot, back story, twists, turns and red herrings it is amazing that the book isn’t another few hundred pages long. Yet I think to be left wanting more of a book is always a good sign no matter what the length of it. If you are looking for a literary novel, because the prose is superb, that will have you utterly gripped and guessing along the way then I do urge you to give ‘The Lifeboat’ a whirl, I thought it was fantastic.

So I think you can tell that’s a rather hearty recommendation from me. Watch out for more Charlotte Rogan on the blog tomorrow. Until then… who else has read ‘The Lifeboat’ and what did you think? Any other recommendations for books set on boats I might be missing?

17 Comments

Filed under Books of 2012, Charlotte Rogan, Review, Virago Books

17 responses to “The Lifeboat – Charlotte Rogan

  1. I have had this on my wish list for a while now – but due a birthday TBR explosion I am not allowed to buy any more just yet. I know what you mean about boats in books. Although I too loved Jamrach’s Menagerie – and also I loved A life of Pi – I had avoided it for years, then read it last year and loved it. So this is one I may have to succumb to at some point.

    • I always foregt to mention Life of Pi, I loved that book too and indeed it was set on a boat. I think really the boat thing might be in my head. I am working on it though.

  2. rhonda

    I loved this book.it took me by surprise. Swept me away and I couldn’t put it down.

  3. I loved this! I read The Lifeboat before I read Gillespie and I, but like you the books reminded me of each other in the use of unreliable narrators.

    • I do think I am rather attracted to an unreliable narrator, this could explain a lot in my life hahahaha. I think I felt I knew Harriet more in G&I however the fact that Grace is somewhat a colder mystery worked really well in this novel. Some people haven’t had that reaction it seems. We must be a rare breed.

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  6. Jae

    I’ve never heard of this book but it does indeed sound amazing. Glad to have read your review and possibly discovered an amazing new book!

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  8. While I had hoped for a more intense story about the dynamics of people unknown to each other being placed in peril on a lifeboat, this turned out to be a strangely dispassionate narrative from only one person’s perspective. Because that person was selfishly passive about her circumstances, and so easily manipulated if she thought there was something in it for her, we learn almost nothing about the other passengers. Everything is filtered through Grace’s shifting perceptions. Grace is a seriously flawed person, and that usually offers literary opportunity for growth. But Grace’s flaws were with her before the lifeboat, remained with her throughout the time on the sea, and her trial, and she came out the other side essentially unchanged. There is a lot of discussion of the ethics and morality of lifeboat survival, mixed with strong undercurrents of the gender politics of a century ago. None of this gave life to any of the characters and I found no one to root for or have any serious curiousity about. There were many loose ends left unresolved, showing them to be no more than red herrings and filler. The book ended with a shrug.

    • Blimey, thats quite a harsh critique. That said I can see why some people might not have enjoyed this book. Grace is in some ways a mystery and that can come across a little distant and cold, however this added to the sense of mystery for me. I loved working out how much, if at all, she is involved in all that happens, in part because of the glimpses we see of her before the sinking. I liked that aspect but I could see why people might not.

    • I agree, I thought the book was trying to cover too much, there were too many themes in too little pages, and too many characters?

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