Sunday 2 June 2013

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

'Layered with ambiguity' is one phrase in Hilary Mantel's glowing recommendation on the cover of Charlotte Rogan's novel, The Lifeboat. Perhaps one of the most glaring ambiguities is the title itself.
    The story is that of Grace Winter, who is seen into a lifeboat by her rich banker husband, just as the passenger liner, the Empress Alexandra is about to sink. It is 1914, World War One is just getting going, and Grace is returning to Boston with her new husband to a comfortable life, having avoided the necessity of becoming a governess. She is 22, beautiful and with everything to look forward to.
    We know early on though that Grace is a survivor. When we first meet her, it is some time after her rescue, and Grace and two other women survivors are being tried for murder. What could possibly have happened on the lifeboat, the reader wonders? And so begins a tense tale that reels you in.
    There are thirty-nine people on the lifeboat, mostly women, under the stewardship of Mr Hardie, a grim-faced, weather battered ship's officer who makes some tough decisions and quickly organises the group's seating to balance the perilously laden boat. The ship's owners have cut costs and there were not enough lifeboats for the number aboard. Hardie works out a roster for bailing duty, but if the weather turns rough, someone will have to go over the side.
    Mrs Grant, however, disagrees with Mr Hardie on most questions of survival right from the start. Should they stay near the ship in hope of rescue or should they try to row for land? There are disputes over the rationing of water and ships' biscuits and then there is the question of whether Mr Hardie is hiding something? Is Grace on board because her wealthy husband was able to bribe him?  
   Mrs Grant is a commanding woman with a captivating manner - Grace would love to win her approval, but never quite seems to. Mannish Hannah, who throws long intense looks at Grace, will do everything Mrs Grant says and soon the two are thick as thieves. Grace however sides with Mr Hardie. She recognises his superior knowledge in things maritime and besides, he's quite good looking in an odd sort of way. She gives him looks of encouragement when Mrs Grant is at her most undermining and hopes she has won his trust.
    In no time at all, Charlotte Rogan has set up an intense situation within the claustrophobic confines of the lifeboat. It is a harrowing story, and of course we know that there are soon going to be deaths. Some of the survivors are in poor shape. There are older people on board and even a child. We know things can only get worse, this is a survival story after all.
    And that is probably the crux of the novel - just what does it take to survive a disaster? Grace has already dodged the prospect of a less genteel existence, she is determined and resourceful. Will this be enough? On board there is a vicar - will God save him? Mrs Grant often leads the group in a hymn, but perhaps this is to galvanise the group's spirit and therefore her obvious strengths as a leader.
    The Lifeboat is the kind of book you can read in one sitting, the tense situation it describes makes it hard to put down. But you probably won't forget it in a hurry. As with many survival stories, you can't help but take a good look at yourself and wonder how far would you go to ensure you are a survivor.

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