The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
Published by Virago in 2013
My copy: Library
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.
It is 1914 and Europe is on the brink of war. When a magnificent ocean liner suffers a mysterious explosion en route to New York City, Henry Winter manages to secure a place in a lifeboat for his new wife Grace. But the survivors quickly realize the boat is over capacity and could sink at any moment. For any to live, some must die.
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 are tested to the limit as they begin to discover what they will do in order to survive.
This is my first book review for far, far too long – I hope I remember how to write them!
I’m a big fan of Pinterest, and read about this novel on one of those many lists you see on there called: “The xx books you must read if you love xx” – these lists are addictive reading and cause my wishlist to swell every time I read one, so be warned! I should probably stay away myself… But fairly soon after I added this book to my wishlist, I found it in my local library, so it seemed a good opportunity to give it a go.
Grace is newly married, and finds herself without her husband on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, just weeks after her wedding. We know from the start of the book that she survives the ordeal, but that not everyone did. She then narrates her story from the start, and we find out exactly what happens on board the lifeboat – or at least Grace’s version of what happens…
We find out much more about several of the others on the boat, and it is quite fascinating how all the different character collude and collide over the course of a treacherous few weeks. We meet Hardie, who becomes a sort of self-nominated leader, as well as Mrs Grant, who is strong and wilful. As the tension builds it seems inevitable that tensions will reach boiling point – but in the meantime, the boat is already overcrowded and will sink if a few people don’t make a sharp exit.
There is such tension in this novel, and at times it is almost unbearable. You can really picture this horribly overcrowded boat being thrown around in the middle of the ocean, and the author gives us enough information to be able to understand exactly what these characters face. I really enjoyed the way that gossip floats around the boat like Chinese whispers – and we also come to realise that Grace has a few secrets of her own. She is an enigmatic character who keeps to herself – but as the story progresses you definitely get the feeling that she might not be all she seems. There are hints that she shouldn’t perhaps be on the boat at all, and suggestions that she might have a few things to hide.
I was expecting a big twist at the end of this novel which didn’t really come – and while at first this was disappointing, thinking about the novel afterwards I felt that this was part of the point – the author leaves the reader to make their own mind up about certain things that had happened on the boat and how guilty or otherwise Grace may be. It is definitely a novel that raises a lot of questions, and in this way it reminded me a little of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which has the same inconclusive and slightly ambiguous ending.
Overall I did enjoy this novel a lot. I found it very gripping and a good mix of adventure, historical fiction and thriller. If you like unreliable narrators then this is definitely one I would recommend – although you will find that the reader is left hanging a bit at the end and leaves you trying to work out what might actually have happened.