Humans are a difficult bunch to kill. For instance, place 39 people in a lifeboat ideally suited for 30, in the middle of the North Atlantic, with little food or water, and see how long they last. In Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel, The Lifeboat, this is the situation that Grace Winter finds herself in. Married to Henry for only 2 weeks, they are aboard the steamship Empress Alexandra in 1914, travelling from Europe to America, when there is an explosion and suddenly chaos reigns while passengers and crew are hurried into the lifeboats.
Grace, and many of her fellow lifeboat inhabitants, survive the experience. Three weeks in an open, wooden, leaking boat in the middle of the ocean, with only one person aboard who knows anything about the sea, and instead a cripple, a deacon, and more than half the occupants female, and yet she survives. But at what cost? For Grace is telling her recollections of the experience in a journal. A journal that her lawyers urge her to write, while she awaits her trial for murder. But whose murder? And when? And how?
The trappings of civilization had kept the occupants – for the most part – comfortable, in that they are aware of their fellow man and each tries to help each other cope with their situation. But the constant exposure, as well as the lack of food and water, and the waves and weather rising up against them, makes inroads into what passes for society on the lifeboat. The occupants naturally fall into two main camps – those led by Mr Hardie, able seaman of the Empress Alexandra and their source of seawise knowledge, and the others led by the formidable Mrs Grant and her collaborator Hannah West.
When starvation and dehydration rob self-awareness from all but the most strong-minded, then it becomes a battle of wits between the two camps on the boat. Should they head for a coastline, any coastline, or should they remain near the wreckage of the steamship and hope for rescue? Eventually, some of the occupants must perish. There is disease, starvation, and of course simply falling overboard and drowning to contend with. But which camp will win? And how do they achieve their victory? This novel is a fascinating and compelling examination of humanity and the will to survive. And in the end, Grace’s innocence or guilt, while it may be determined by a court, is really only a veneer over that very same will to survive.
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