In her thrilling account of the struggle for survival after a Titanic-like disaster at sea, Charlotte Rogan does what no other book or film of the sort I’ve encountered ever has: She recognizes that the circumstances of life may be drastically altered, but that bodies remain bodies. It’s both unsettling and funny how the Edwardian propriety of the survivors is challenged by the unshakable obligations of nature.
When the Empress Alexandra sinks in mid-Atlantic in the summer of 1914, as the guns of August are about to begin firing in Europe, we follow, through the narrative eyes of Grace Winter, the failing fortunes of the passengers of a single lifeboat. There are, to begin with, 39 of them, in a boat ostensibly built for 40, but in fact much less capacious owing to cost-cutting by the ship's owners.
Though the survivors expect to be rescued imminently, and seem to be ably commanded by the single seaman among them, Mr. Hardie, alliances and suspicions soon begin to form. As I suggested at the outset, Rogan, whose debut novel this is, is very fine at detailing the sheer arduous, draining physicality of the ordeal. The boat is overcrowded and constantly in need of bailing, a sort of metaphor for the increasingly overwrought emotional climate.
As the days and dark nights pass, food and water run out and no rescuers appear, terrible strains begin to show, hastened by the protean nature of the sea: now calm, now tempest-tossed. In small increments, the veneer of civilization is stripped away. In this small Darwinian craft, the strong do what they think they must to survive; the weak cower – or perish. Rogan demonstrates superbly how, when the prospect of salvation is vanishingly small, so is the contemplation of future reward or punishment, even among the well-bred.
This is also very much a woman’s novel. Besides narrator Grace, the most powerful figures on the lifeboat are women (Mrs. Grant and Hannah), as are the weakest. Grace has been on her honeymoon with her now-missing husband, Henry. It was an arranged marriage; arranged by Grace, that is. Henry, a banker, was already affianced, but Grace seduced him (probably literally) into breaking his engagement. He is her escape ticket from life as a governess after her family’s fall from fortune.
Grace is intelligent, more subtle than she seems and also pliable, as her allegiances vary. But her testimony is also not entirely reliable, since her survival instincts will prove to be the strongest of anyone’s.
In fluid, straightforward, yet consistently evocative prose, Rogan convinces us of the terror of this voyage into darkness: physical, psychological, spiritual. Religion proves small defence against the power of nature; indeed, the sea becomes a kind of god, with the capricious power of life and death.
At once deceptively simple and technically accomplished, a straightforward thriller and a tale of moral complexity, The Lifeboat is a remarkable debut. I am not alone in thinking so; witness a dazzling set of cover raves by the likes of Hilary Mantel, J.M. Coetzee, Emma Donoghue and Tim O’Brien. When such a disparate quartet agrees that a book is something special, it would be mutinous to disagree.
Books editor Martin Levin has always loved a good shipwreck tale.