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The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

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Long listed for the Guardian First Book Award 2012

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A very readable and clever look at power and influence as well as ethical and moral issues aboard a small lifeboat in the mid-Atlantic with memorable narrator who you might not like but will remain with you. Read before booking a Costa Cruise!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Virago
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781844087525

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Charlotte Rogan's debut novel The Lifeboat takes an unexpected look at life on a lifeboat of a sunken liner, midway between the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania. In many ways, a lifeboat presents an ideal situation for a novelist. You have a set number of characters and clear boundaries. But there's only so much interest in 'we were scared' and 'oh, look here comes another big wave'. Her solution is to take the story as one of moral and ethical choices rather than an out and out adventure. As her narrator, Grace Winter, concludes 'it was not the sea that was cruel, but the people'.

We initially meet Grace as she, along with two other women, is on trial for her life, although it will take much of the book to determine what has occurred. Her legal team encourage her to write her memories of events as they came to pass from the sinking of the Empress Alexandria in a day by day account of the action and this is what much of the book entails.

Grace herself is an unsettling character as a narrator. We immediately know that something has happened on board the lifeboat to warrant her trial and we quickly learn that her recent marriage to a rich banker, Henry, was achieved by somewhat strange means, although this is one of several things that will remain unanswered in the book. It's not a book that ties everything up and Grace is all the more unsettling for this.

The main point of concern, arguably because of the reason Grace is recalling the events, is the politics on board the lifeboat rather than a detailed and grizzly account of conditions. Of course some is provided, but that's not the main focus albeit that in a lifeboat apparently designed for 40, it is overloaded with 39 passengers and if any are to survive, some will have to be sacrificed for the greater good. If you are looking for an account of how it feels to be on a small boat adrift in the middle of the Atlantic, there's a chance you will be disappointed here. The account is Grace's recollections for use in her trial and so concentrates on the people rather than events.

I've mentioned that Grace is unsettling - she's also not particularly likable. She claims in her narrative, and the reader will have to judge for themselves how reliable this is but the inference is probably not that much, to be indecisive and an outsider. Even before the events of the story, there is evidence that she craves attention of others, particularly those in power, without particularly commanding it, but certainly not adverse to scheming her way in life. At times she comes over like Hamlet's more indecisive younger sister. She watches with envy the relationships and gossip of many of the, mostly female, lifeboat passengers. It's this plotting and scheming of the passengers and changing factions and power struggles that underpin the book. Reference is made to Hobbes's Leviathan and it's a very Hobbesian view of survival and power. What is sacrificed in terms of the novel is action scenes and depth of characterization. Yet, Grace was so aloof that getting to know people was probably beneath her. Or is this all part of her scheming?

If you come at this looking for authenticity and adventure, you will be less enthralled, but as a story of ethics, morals and psychological power struggles, it's a terrific achievement. There's little surprise that one of the cover's endorsements is from Emma Donoghue, whose Room contained a similar psychological approach. It's a little frustrating that some of Grace's back story remains unexplained, and you are left with conflicting views of her character. But it's beautifully paced and thought provoking stuff, that manages to include issues such as truth, religion, gender, class, different means of influence and religion.

It's a terrible book to take with you on a cruise - otherwise strongly recommended.

For more clever fiction on the high seas, this time on a boat that remains afloat, check out The Blue Book by A L Kennedy.

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Buy The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan at


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