The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

the lifeboat

Published: 2012 by Virago
My copy: bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “I was not alone in feeling a strange sympathy for all that lay around me: the sky, the sea, and the boat full of people, all of whom now had blood dripping down their chins and lips creased with painful fissures that cracked and bled when they chanced to smile.”

There’s been quite a lot of hype about this new historical novel, the publication of which was clearly timed to coincide with the Titanic centenary. Set two years after the Titanic disaster the book imagines another ocean catastrophe: the sinking of The Empress Alexandra and most of the action takes place aboard the overloaded Lifeboat 14 as a disparate group of survivors struggle to keep afloat and gradually come to terms with the fact that the rescue they so desperately need may not be forthcoming. Rogan’s protagonist is Grace – newly married and with plenty of skeletons in her own cupboard which are gradually revealed as the story progresses.

Thanks to my historic polar exploration fixation (have you noticed that?) I have been immersed in the early twentieth century for many months now and I have to say as a work of historical fiction this book didn’t quite convince. The dialogue felt too modern to me – in tone and sentiment – and so many of the little details just didn’t feel quite right. However, as a psychological novel rather an a historical one this was a gripping read. I was really caught up in the intensity of the struggle for survival and the clash of personalities in the little boat as the starving passengers turn on each other in desperation. The book raises a number of fascinating moral questions which it doesn’t really answer – can anyone? I found the ending rather rushed too but if you like your fiction grim and your experiences near-death with a dash of feminism thrown in then there’s enough power in the overall premise to make this well worth a read. Though this, her début, is a bit patchy I shall certainly be interested to see what Rogan writes next.

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