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