11.24.2013

The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan

The Lifeboat
Memory is a tricky thing. It gets even trickier when clouded with emotions like terror and despair and suspicion. Worse still is when memory has to combat extreme hunger and dehydration. When you have a narrator who is actively lying to you, it's hard to tell just what happened to the group of survivors from the Empress Alexandra as depicted in Charlotte Rogan's The Lifeboat

Grace Winter has just survived twenty harrowing days in a lifeboat after the Empress Alexandra sank in the North Atlantic. Only half of the lifeboats were successfully deployed, albeit dangerously overloaded because they weren't built to spec. Grace lost her husband of just a few days. If you're reminded of the Titanic, you're not far off. In the prologue to The Lifeboat we learn that after her ordeal, Grace is now on trial for the actions the survivors on that boat took. Because Grace has such a hard time remembering what happened and when, her lawyers recommend that she write down what she can recall and visit a psychiatrist to pry the rest out.

The Lifeboat will inevitably make you wonder what you would do in the same situation. How far would you go to survive? Because the lifeboats were so overloaded, the questions comes up almost immediately. It's broached by the seaman who escaped with Grace and the 37 others in their boat. Mr. Hardie wrangled extra water and rations, set a rota of bailing and rowing, and held the group together from panicking. The first days are calm, but when a squall comes up, Hardie brings up the idea of a few survivors sacrificing themselves so that the boat won't founder. As time goes on, the situation grows increasingly dire. Not only do the survivors have to worry about the elements, they have to worry about when Hardie might decide their time is up, too.

You might think things can't get worse, but there are hints of mystery to Grace's story. What happened to the two chests of gold on the Alexandra? Why is Hardie so afraid of running into Mr. Blake the other lifeboat? How did Grace manage to get her husband to drop his first fiance? So many questions, and by the end of The Lifeboat, I had to wonder if the story I had just read was the story of what happened. Stories like this are catnip to me. I'll be thinking about this one for days, trying to parse between what happened, what Grace wants us to think happened, and what she unintentionally hinted at in her diary and testimony. Stories like this require deep concentration, but they reward it by giving you bonus narratives folded into the main story line.

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