The Lifeboat has an intriguingly unusual premise. Set in 1914, it tells the story of a group of 39 people marooned in a lifeboat after their ship, the Empress Alexandra, explodes inexplicably on its way to New York City. The story is told from the point of view of Grace, a 22-year-old newlywed who was travelling to New York with her husband, Henry, to meet her parents-in-law for the first time.
What I didn’t realise before starting the book is that the story is told in a diary form; a diary Grace is writing for her lawyers. She has survived the ordeal of the lifeboat but is now on trial for something which happened during that time, something which is not revealed until later in the story. Because we know that the story is written with the lawyers in mind, it immediately throws into question the integrity of the account. Grace is an unreliable narrator who potentially has very good reasons for lying her way through her story.
I picked up The Lifeboat because I imagined it would be a thrilling, adventurous tale. The premise of a group of strangers being confined in such a small space for a prolonged amount of time, with their lives at stake, excited me. Who knows what anyone would do under those circumstances? I came into the story expecting thrills and chills, and it delivered to some extent.
However, this book is not an action-packed story. It is much more contemplative. Grace spends much of her time on introspection, considering her past, present and future, and the beliefs which help her to remain strong. One of the many underlying themes is religion; with a deacon on board the ship the survivors discuss stories from the bible, and their own faith, at length. The situation is one which drives many to question their faith, but the protagonist Grace holds on to her belief that ‘God helps those who help themselves’ – and perhaps this is why she is one of the survivors of the lifeboat.
This story considers morals and ethics in depth. It examines the divide between men and women and prompts you to question, how far would you go to save yourself? As starvation and fatigue take force on the boat, the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, begin to blur. One line from Grace regarding the boat’s shipman Mr Hardie’s actions at one point, sums it up – she says:
I question whether it can even be called cruelty when any other action would have meant our certain death.
For a debut, this novel is astonishingly well written. Charlotte Rogan captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of the boat extremely well. However, the character development is lacking. With 39 people on the boat, the reader doesn’t even get to know all of them by name. We only see people from Grace’s point of view and Grace herself is somewhat abstract, vague and stand offish. Particularly as her account of events cannot be trusted. I couldn’t find myself conjuring much empathy for anyone, although maybe that was what the author intended.
It also alludes to a lot of mystery which is not properly solved, leaving questions unanswered. Why did the boat explode? How did Grace’s husband ensure she got a safe place on the lifeboat? What were Mr Hardie’s true intentions? These questions are never answered, but I get the feeling that the author did this on purpose.
If I’m completely honest, I don’t think that this book was really for me, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its good points. The author is clearly an adept writer and I’m sure many readers out there will love it.