Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Lifeboat

Gather together my friends and let me tell you about the time that all the pre-pub publicity was true! It was a happy, magical time throughout the land. Everyone rejoiced.  Heavenly choirs were heard. The book was The Lifeboat by CharlotteRogan.

It is the early days of WWI. Runaway newlyweds Harry and Grace are sailing back from England to New York when their ship, the Empress Alexander, sinks. Harry gets Grace, maybe by way of a bribe, on one of the overcrowded lifeboats and for the next two weeks she and her fellow survivors are adrift on the Atlantic. In the dangerous little world of the lifeboat loyalties are made and broken, small victories are negated by life threatening setbacks and self preservation takes an unbreakable hold.

At the start of the novel Rogan tells us that Grace and two other women passengers from the lifeboat are in New York on trial for their lives. The charge is murder. The two women have pleaded self-defense, Grace has pleaded not guilty.

 The novel is the journal of events that Graces’ defense attorney has her write down. In doing so she also tells the story of her young life thus far. At 22 Grace has gone from pampered daughter to jailbird in short order. Her dispassionate narrative is compelling but flawed: the document is from her perspective and therefore slanted, it is being written after the fact and she is recalling a time when the effects of malnutrition and dehydration bring her memory into question. By the same token the testimonies of the other survivors and defendants carry the same caveats.

Rogan has crafted a remarkable character in Grace. That’s an especially good thing since the novel spends most of its time inside her head. If Grace didn’t let an engagement to another woman impede her marrying Harry to ensure a financially secure future how far will she go to survive when the water and food run out on the lifeboat? Is Grace just young or is she calculating? She worries as much about how her new in-laws will receive her as she does about surviving the sinking.  

Thanks to Rogan, during the two weeks adrift the veneer of society cracks in fascinating ways. The first ordered steps on the boat soon give way to power struggles, illness, THIRST and paranoia. Graces’ telling of the harrowing day-to-day of the passengers is also filled with interesting thoughts and questions about religion and morality.

Despite the fact that from the start of the novel you know that Grace has survived the shipwreck The Lifeboat is extremely suspenseful. How did Charlotte Rogan accomplish that? The Lifeboat is no potboiler cataloging shortages, storms and deaths so what combination of impressive skills and magic has made it so complex? So gripping? I do not have a clue but whatever it was…thanks!
The Lifeboat is one of my favorite reads so far this year.

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