There can be no doubt that The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel, is an interesting an engaging read. But whether or not I actually like the book is a different matter. The novel, narrated by the rather prim Mrs Grace Winter, is her memories and recollections of the sinking of The Empress Alexandra, a transatlantic cruise ship, and her time floating aboard an undersized lifeboat with thirty-eight other people, a couple of years after the sinking of the Titanic.
As far as plot goes, there isn’t a huge amount of it, which is understandable due to the nature of the novel’s setting. The ship sinks; Mrs Winter finds herself in a lifeboat; they are eventually rescued, and then there is a court case surrounding some of the events which occurred on the boat. As such the novel really needs to be outstanding on atmosphere and character development. The former it excels at until they are rescued. The three quarters of the novel set on the boat are a harrowing recount of a group’s determination for survival amidst a seemingly hopeless backdrop of waves, sharing out knife caught fish, ship’s biscuits and water for the progressively decreasing figure of thirty-nine and the constant dissension amongst the passengers.
The latter on the other hand is severely lacking. Because the novel is written in first person and past tense there is a significant distance between the reader and the situation. It’s beautifully described but you cannot feel anything for the character who you are essentially watching through the particularly cold and disclosing eyes of Mrs Winter. There is very little engagement with the other characters on the boat and twinned with the truth that none of them, least of all the narrator, are distinctly likable; you can’t really feel for them. They end up just as objects. There is no sense of remorse for the dead, nor relief for the living. It makes the concept feel deflated. The other issue is that there are simply too many people on the boat to align with. Thirty-nine people are said to be on the boat. But you quickly forget those other than the key characters of Mrs Winter, Mr Hardie; the only seaman on board, the officious Mrs Grant and her dogsbody Hannah and the wet and annoying Mary Ann. I am certain that at least half of the characters on the boat are unaccounted for even at the end of the novel, so how can you care that they lived or died?
The novel seems to be trying to make a statement, but it doesn’t seem to know which statement to make. It extensively addresses feminism and suffrage, but as it appears to be leaning towards that it veers off into religion. I couldn’t even call it a novel about survival or trauma. It’s a novel about a selection of cardboard cut-out stereotypes who find themselves in an extreme situation. But it’s the situation which wins the awards, not the characters. To be honest, the boat left bobbing in the ocean at the end as the survivors departed on a fishing boat was the only character I truly missed. If the first three quarters existed without the final one and if the novel had been in third person then perhaps it could have been better. Unfortunately it had a lot of shortcomings. It’s real saving grace is the description and the tension Rogan creates. I feel it’s a divider of opinions and you can only really know what yours is after reading it.