Review: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books; 1 edition (April 3, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 0316185906
  • Source: Publisher (Netgalley)

It’s 1914. The Empress Alexandra, bound for New York, suffers a fire on deck and the passengers are forced to flee the ship, five days out of Liverpool.  Some survivors make it on board lifeboats. The sinking of the Titanic two years prior is fresh on the passenger’s minds.

Grace is a newlywed, traveling to New York with her husband, Henry, a banker. Grace is one of the survivors that is able to find space on a lifeboat among several other passengers. Their boat is “captained” by Hardie, a crew member from the Empress Alexandra. He’s their savior, sharing his nautical skills as a means of insuring their survival. He’s able to catch fish to nourish them, collect rainwater to quench their thirst.

It’s not long before they all realize their lifeboat is severely overloaded. Adjustments made to the size and structure of the lifeboat aren’t reflected in the passenger capacity sign; apparently a shortage in the ship’s owner’s budget prevented him from reprinting the signs. Additionally, a whole in the lifeboat requires the passengers to bail water constantly. The survival of the entire group is at risk; someone needs to sacrifice their own life to save those of all the others. Soon alliances are formed, survivors plotting against one another, bound to survive this incredibly traumatic voyage.

The Lifeboat is a narrative of Grace’s experience on the nearly three weeks spent languishing on the lifeboat. Grace is determined to survive, refusing to succumb to the death and dismay surrounding her. She retells the power struggle between Hardie and other survivors, of the act performed by some of the survivors, including herself, all in the name of safety and preservation of life for those on the lifeboat.

Grace’s narration alternates between past and present, between her experience on the lifeboat and her relationship/courtship with her husband, Henry, now presumed dead. Grace is a neutral character, in my mind: a character that I don’t necessarily root for but on the hand do not despise. To me, due to the circumstances, her narration and viewpoint are unreliable.  Her retelling of the saga comes from a journal. A journal that doesn’t exactly mesh with the actual events that transpire during the journey. Knowing that she may face repercussions for the act she performs on the lifeboat, I can’t help but wonder how truthful her retellings were. The atmosphere on the lifeboat was quite hostile from the beginning; several of the other survivors commenting that Grace’s position on the lifeboat was bought by her wealthy husband. She didn’t “deserve” the spot she now held; instead it should have gone to another passenger.  As the novel progresses, we witness just how manipulative Grace can be. It becomes obvious that she puts her own survival and desires above all others.

The Lifeboat is, at its core, a story of survival. Several issues of morality come in to play making this the perfect book for discussion. Rogan paints a setting so vivid and realistic, one can’t help but imagining themselves as a passenger on the lifeboat. Additionally, you’ll find yourself pondering what you would have done in their place.  Would you have risked your life for the sake of others? Or would you have taken some other individual’s life in your own hands?  These questions continued to pervade my thoughts days after completing this book. Highly recommended.

Rogan’s own story, her path to publication, is an inspirational one. She wrote this novel in secret, hiding it from her friends and even her husband. The inspiration for this novel came from a case in her husband’s criminal law texts, Queen v. Dudley and Stephens. In this case, two shipwrecked individuals kill and consume another castaway. While there is no cannibalism in The Lifeboat, it does explore some of the same issues of this case.

Be sure to check out the author’s web site for additional multimedia information on the book.

14 Responses to Review: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

  1. Beth F
    Twitter: BethFishReads

    This is such a thought-provoking book. I agree that’s it’s perfect for book clubs. Good job on reviewing without spoiling.

  2. This one sounds very intriguing. As in, I gotta read it! LOL

  3. I am struggling with how to review it without spoilers! Because it is so fun to talk about the spoilery aspects! :–)

    • Jenn
      Twitter: jennbookshelves

      That was a bit of a challenge! I may nominate this for a book club selection for the club I lead once it comes out in paperback.

  4. This was a book that made me wish I had a book club. There is just SO MUCH to discuss in this one!!

    • Jenn
      Twitter: jennbookshelves

      I agree! I found myself attempting to discuss it with my husband. A purely fruitless effort since he hadn’t read the book!

  5. Karen White
    Twitter: karenwhitereads

    Your review is compelling – but I’m worried that reading it might freak me out! Will you ever go on a boat again? :)

  6. Oh my gosh, that sounds like quite the page turner!!

  7. Sandy
    Twitter: youvegottaread

    I just read about this book in EW, and I found myself lingering over the review. And y’all keep talking about spoilers to be kept secret, so there must be some controversy! I’m going to have to get my hands on this one.

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  10. You write a beautiful review, Jenn. I would like to read this one. Reading your review is just a wonderful reminder that books are sooooooo deliciously good for the soul.::))