Disturbing, intense and claustrophobic, Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat follows the lives of 39 passengers following the sinking of an ocean liner in 1914. Adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with the possibility of rescue looking less and less likely, the lifeboat is dangerously over-full and provisions increasingly scarce.
Thrown together in the confined space of the boat, the passengers face moral dilemmas and difficult decisions in their struggle for survival. Newly formed relationships are pushed to the limit as personalities clash and the survivors’ battle to take control of their surroundings. The Lifeboat tackles the darkest places of the human psyche and also reminds us of the wild and brutal potential of the natural world.
The novel is told through the words of 22-year-old Grace Winter, who came on board the doomed ship with her new husband, Henry, and was left widowed after the accident. However, throughout the book, we start to suspect that Grace may not be a very reliable source. Her narrative tone becomes increasingly distant and dispassionate, and the truth behind events is thrown into question.
As we follow the passengers from their perilous situation on the open seas to the trials of the courtroom on their eventual return, Charlotte Rogan tackles potentially contentious issues as she challenges everything from religious belief to inequality in gender roles.
I raced through this book and had to stop myself from reading ahead to the end. Some people have commented that it’s hard to sympathise with the characters, but I thought this just added to the overall tone of the novel. The author deliberately doesn’t write characters that are likeable. Instead, she uses the passengers of the lifeboat to explore the depths of human nature and personalities, both good and bad, as well as the lengths we will go to survive.
It’s impossible to imagine how we ourselves would react if we were forced into the same situation and you can’t help but put yourself in their place. It’s a gripping, and thought-provoking read, and although admittedly it did make for slightly uncomfortable reading I’d definitely recommend it.