The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
I was to stand trial for my life. I was twenty-two years old. I had been married for ten weeks and a widow for six.
In the summer of 1914, the Empress Alexandra, a magnificent ocean liner, suffers a mysterious explosion on its voyage from London to New York City. On board are Henry Winter, a rich banker, and his young new wife, Grace. Somehow, Henry manages to secure a place in a lifeboat for Grace. But the survivors quickly realize it is over capacity and could sink at any moment. For any to live, some must die. As the castaways battle the elements, and each other, Grace watches and waits. She is a woman who has learned the value of patience – her journey to a life of glittering privilege has been far from straightforward. Now, she knows, it is in jeopardy, and her very survival is at stake. Over the course of three perilous weeks, the passengers on the lifeboat plot, scheme, gossip and console one another while sitting inches apart. Their deepest beliefs about goodness, humanity and God are tested to the limit as they begin to discover what they will do in order to survive.
I have been extremely excited about The Lifeboat since it was chosen as one of the Waterstones 11 debut novels. There have been many good reviews cropping up all over the place online, and with quotes on the cover from authors such as Hilary Mantel and J. M. Coetzee, there is no way this could be anything other than truly great novel, right? Sadly, now that I have read it, I am left feeling a little bewildered at the hype surrounding this book. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I wanted to love it, how I even thought it would be the best book out of the entire Waterstones 11 selection.
What I loved most about the idea of this novel is the way it seemed like it would really make you think about humanity and the importance of our survival. When a lifeboat contains more people than it can carry, you know that sooner or later decisions are going to have to be made. This was the real thrill of the book for me. How can anyone possibly decide who should live or die? Should the men go overboard and let the women and children live? Or should the men live because they will be the strongest and most likely chance of getting any of them home? This is where the character of Hardie, an employee on the Empress Alexandra, expert seaman and leader of the lifeboat, plays a very enigmatic but intriguing role. Whatever decisions are made, are ultimately made by him. But how much can the other survivors trust him? Is he really doing what’s best for them, giving them the best chance of survival? Or is he involved in something a little more sinister? Does he know why the Empress Alexandra sank in the first place? As a reader, these questions keep compelling you to read on, and I for one was completely hooked by the story. There were little moments where I really tried to imagine myself in their situation, and wonder if I would have done anything differently. However, for me, these moments were too few and far between.
The problem with this novel, for me, is the protagonist, Grace. The whole story is written from her perspective, from when she is on trial for murder, to when she is on the lifeboat. However, Grace is a completely unlikeable character. I don’t tend to have a problem with unlikeable characters – you can come across cruel and despicable characters but still appreciate them for what they bring to the story. But Grace is such a cold, selfish and unfeeling character that all she managed to achieve was make me feel completely emotionally detached from the whole story. When it comes to reading a story about the struggle for survival, you expect to be swept up in this huge emotional journey that will make you think for weeks after you’ve put it down. Instead, I felt disconnected from everyone in the boat, I didn’t care for any of them, half of them I couldn’t even get a sense of who they were, and this is because we are seeing it through the eyes of someone so cold. The more you learn about Grace the more you hate her. She does nothing to help in the lifeboat, she relies on everyone else to do it for her, but she constantly criticises others for their lack of involvement too. Don’t get me wrong, Rogan has created an interesting character in Grace, but just unfortunately, not someone I wanted to see through the eyes of in this instance. I think I would have found the book much more powerful if I was allowed to connect to what these people must have been feeling during this terrible tragedy. I can even appreciate that Rogan was perhaps trying to approach a situation of this nature through a different set of eyes. Maybe her intentions were not to make it about the suffering of this group of people. Grace lead a somewhat difficult life before her journey on the boat, maybe she saw this as just another obstacle in her way in making it to the top of society, and perhaps that is what it was meant to be about all along. But for me, as a whole, it didn’t quite work.
I can see that some of you will love this book, and probably dislike this review, in particular Daniel at Dog Ear Discs, who has written a five star review for it. We actually had a rather intriguing discussion about the effects of the hype that sometimes surrounds a novel before its publication. When I started reading The Lifeboat, two of my colleagues were reading it also and neither of them loved it. It is always a possibility that the thoughts of others are already set in your mind before you delve into a book, and therefore make you wary of what to expect, and ready to criticise. Whereas, Daniel read this many months ago, probably before most people, and yet absolutely loved it. It would be interesting to know if any of you who are reading this review, think other people’s opinions often come into your own?
Overall, this is a great page-turner of a novel with the sort of plot that keeps you hooked and wanting to find out more. It will make you think a little about humanity’s struggle for survival and it will make you ask yourself questions that you may never have thought of before, the kind of questions that you would never think about outside situations and tragedies like this. But ultimately, it fails to deliver an emotional impact and left me feeling disconnected from the situation and everyone in it. A great book club choice, and good first novel, but for me, not the best of the Waterstones 11 by far.
The Lifeboat is out on 29th March by Virago. Thanks goes to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review.
Of this year’s Waterstones 11 I have also reviewed ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry‘ by Rachel Joyce, ‘The Art of Fielding‘ by Chad Harbach, and The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. To read the reviews please click on the titles.