Charlotte Rogan: The Lifeboat (review)


So I’ve never been all that fascinated by ship wrecks. Yes, I did have a Titanic phase but who didn’t? That doesn’t really count now, does it? I blame Leonardo and Kate for that! But recently, I read Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie and the second part of this story takes place after a ship wreck – and I so so enjoyed it. So when I heard about Charlotte Rogan’s novel The Lifeboat, I immediately decided I wanted to read it. So I rented it from the library and only a few months later (!), I got around to reading it.

Set in 1914, this is the story of Grace Winter, a 22 year old newlywed – and widow. Also, along with two other women, she’s on trial for her life after surviving the ship wreck of the ocean liner Empress Alexandra. Obviously, one immediately wonders why a ship wreck survivor is put on trial for surviving but something happened in the lifeboat, she was lucky enough to get in.

The ocean liner goes down after a mysterious explosion. Grace’s husband seemingly secures her a place in one of the lifeboats, a lifeboat which is filled beyond capacity with 39 people trying to sit just right so the boat doesn’t sink. It quickly becomes apparent that someone has to die in order for someone to live – if everyone stay in the boat, nobody will make it.

Rather quickly, the boat becomes the center of a power struggle when a couple of women start rebelling against John Hardie, a crew member from the ocean liner. When he is not able to deliver the promised rescue as soon as they expected, their trust in him wanes and it becomes down to them – or him.

The story is told from Grace’s point of view retrospectively – from her prison cell where she sits, accused of murder. To help with her defense, her attorney has her write down what she remembers from the boat and this makes up for most of the book while the rest of it is from the trial.

Going in, I knew Grace was supposed to be an unreliable narrator. However, when you only get her side of the story and not really that much from anyone else, it’s hard to judge whether you can trust her or not. She does talk a bit of memory and how it’s hard to remember everything correctly so the question of course is, whether she is unreliable on purpose to try to help her win her case or because she can’t remember what really happened – or whether she is unreliable at all. I had expected a big reveal in the end that would really show her true colors but didn’t really get it. It seems that some people believe that as soon as something is a first person narrative, it is per definition unreliable – but I don’t buy this. I think something can be first person without being unreliable – and Rogan did not establish Grace enough as an unreliable narrator to my point of view.

This meant, that I was left with a bit of a fuzzy feeling in the end. I’m not sure I have enough reason to mistrust Grace even though she does come across as a gold digger who intentionally bagged a rich man and misled him to believe it was a chance meeting. But she herself tells us this so that’s not a reason to believe her a liar. She was just a mostly passive woman spending a couple of weeks on a lifeboat, silently watching the others but not doing much until she was forced into action – by circumstances and/or some other passengers or … I think this is a typical example of an author who has a great story with a lot of potential but not yet the skill to make it sing.

Overall, this book left me wanting more. I didn’t find it very suspenseful and I didn’t care all that much about Grace and the other in the boat. There were a few sad images like when they leave a small boy to fend for himself on a piece of wreckage and later beat swimmers away with the oars, but overall, Jamrach’s Menagerie – or Yann Martell’s wonderful Life of Pi  is a much better bet if you want an exciting and thrilling book about a ship wreck.

  • Title: The Lifeboat
  • Author: Charlotte Rogan
  • Publisher: Regan Arthur Books
  • Year: 2012
  • Pages: 279 pages
  • Source: Library
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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10 thoughts on “Charlotte Rogan: The Lifeboat (review)

  1. Agree there wasn’t any big revelation and since we already know that she survives, there wasn’t any of the suspense you might expect from a novel dealing with this subject. But I found Grace’s character intriguing just because I couldn’t decide whether she was an innocent party or a manipulative little minx. One day I will get to read Jamrach’s Mengarie and Pi…

    • I definitely think Jamrach and Pi are better books. I didn’t feel like I had much reason to believe her a little minx but of course, she did trick her husband so maybe she was a lot more than she said. Still, she admitted to tricking him – why not then admit to what else she had done – if she had done it?

  2. I am one of those weird people who didn’t have a Titanic phase. I didn’t watch the movie until years after it came out, and then I realized that hours of my life had gone by that I couldn’t get back. Haha!

    I think first-person narrators have the potential to be wholly reliable…as long as they’re only talking about themselves. As soon as they start relating what other people did/said/thought, they instantly become unreliable for that bit of time. The thing about “truth (reliability)” is that there isn’t a Truth with a capital “T” necessarily. Even if you and I go through a certain situation together, my perceived truths about that situation may be completely different than yours. It’s an interesting thing that I like thinking about when I’m reading first-person narration.

    • Yes, that’s t(T)rue 😉 Yeah, I think you have a point. But it does seem that it awfully easy can become unreliable whenever it’s first person since you don’t even know yourself through and through. We all have tried to react in weird ways that surprised ourselves, I think, so that’s kind of an argument in favor of first person always being unreliable. I just don’t buy that. I think first person narrators can be trusted. To an extent. Grace seems reliable to me, she seems to try to relate the events as truthfully as she could and she does relate a less positive story of herself so she appears truthful, at least.
      I liked Titanic back in the day. Haven’t seen it for years but I remember being very impressed with it.

    • Yes! I loved the dilemmas they faced in Jamrach about what they had to do to survive. These same dilemmas were more played down in this one – and that’s a shame.

  3. You and I felt the same way about this novel. It was a bit of a let down. I didn’t care about Grace or any of the passengers.

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