The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Genre: Historical Fiction
Main characters: Grace Winter
Time and place: 1914, a little boat on the Atlantic Ocean
First sentence:Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.
Verdict: Sadly, another one of those books that everyone loves but me.

It was not the sea that was cruel, but the people.

Grace Winter is 22 and she’s only been married for a few weeks when she becomes a widow. The ship that she and her husband were travelling on sinks, and Grace is one of the passengers of the few boats that were launched; sadly, her husband is not. The real trial is only now beginning though: there are 39 people in Grace’s boat, a bit more than its dimensions allow. As days pass, the hope of rescue dwindles and the weather becomes agitated; the boat’s load should be lightened — but how? Does some people’s chance of survival justify the death of others?

General impression
The premise of the book — thirty-nine people crowded on a tiny boat, a boat that spent twenty-one days at sea — reminded me of Life of Pi, which I loved, and this was the reason I ended up requesting it from NetGalley.

There are indeed similarities between the two books. This one starts out quite captivating, with the difficult choices that the people in the boat must make — their boat is overcrowded as it is, and so they have to steel their hearts at the plights of the people all around them. Particularly touching is a scene where they have to ignore a young boy, nicely dressed, whose mother has died after setting him on a plank. This moment will come back to haunt Grace, our narrator, now and then, and I can only imagine how unsettling the experience must have been.

Like Pi, the people in this boat have to make do with as little resources as possible. Their bodies grow gaunt, raw meat feels like a delicacy, the rains bring with it the blessing of sweet water. And also, like in Pi’s actual story, conflicts break out among the passengers, with some ending up dead. And this is where the book’s grip on my interest faded almost completely. Grace, as a woman, spends her time with the women in the boat, and so we know little to nothing about the talks going on in the men’s group. This is why my opinions/feelings only apply to the female travelers. And boy, they were a despicable lot. Scratch that, despicable probably is too strong a word — yet I cannot find any other right now, so it will have to do. The women spend their time gossiping, fabricating stories out of thin air, and then believing these stories themselves and reacting with indignation towards the ones the story’s about. Instead of wanting to keep peace — after all, they were all literally in the same boat — some of them sow dissent, while others are preoccupied with seizing as much influence and power as possible. While I do of course realize that this is the way things would probably happen in the given situation (as the average person has a tendency for all the things described), I cannot say I am fond of people acting in an average way in extraordinary circumstances. Which is why I spent half the book wanting to punch some of the said women in the face, and also why the moral ambiguity of most of the story was lost on me — to me there was nothing ambiguous about it, those women were in the wrong.

Consider that the people in the boat had one experienced sailor among them, just one. And he, albeit gruff and not very social, has done everything in his power to care for his little flock — he rationed the provisions, he instituted a schedule, he caught fish — and the idiots in the boat owed him their survival, such as it was. They themselves should have known that, as at one point they intersect with another boat from the same ship, and the people there seem a lot worse off. Now, this sailor, Mr. Hardie, may not have a completely clean character — he may have been a thief, but there is no proof of that, just stories upon stories upon stories, most of them fabricated as likely as not. But no, the women decided to hold him responsible for their situation (“He made his best guess, that was all, which was certainly better than mine. Yet I and others blamed him as if he knew the truth and kept it from us–capriciously, or as a form of punishment for our sins.“). They said he was a threat to them and he had to be killed. And this is supposed to be morally ambiguous? Not in my book it isn’t. It is one thing to kill someone to ensure your own survival and quite another to finish one off simply because you’ve grown tired of being under his command.

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I should mention a few words about Grace. It’s interesting how, despite being the narrator, she didn’t feel that central to the book; she felt to me like yet another woman among those in the boat (although to be fair to her Grace did have the sense that the others lacked — or perhaps she just tells the story in such a way to make herself look good). I did like that she was a doer, not a talker; her motto is “God helps those who help themselves” and she considers hope “a weak emotion, a kind of pleading passivity or entrenched denial”. Her father went bankrupt and killed himself, and her mother, on hearing about this, went mad. Grace’s sister went on to become a governess, while Grace herself evaded this fate by marrying a rich guy (interestingly enough she considers her sister the weak one, the one who settled for less — I find the opposite to be true). Marriage seems to be Grace’s ‘weapon of choice’ (she finds herself a new husband before the book is done), and this has detracted from my initial opinion of her. I feel somewhat cheated in a way — I loved her motto, and a female character who believes in doing things herself can only be a likable one, I thought. But Grace spends the vast majority of the pages entrapped in an environment she cannot influence, regardless of what her philosophy may or may not be. The cases when she does find herself a mistress of her own destiny — after her father went mad and after the thing with the boat is fully over — her solution is marriage, which basically delegates the doing to someone else. Sure, she is very proud that she was able to secure her future by finding a rich husband — but is this really ‘doing something’?

Which brings me at last to the conclusion. Was this a bad book? I don’t think it was. Was this a book for me? Alas, unfortunately it wasn’t. I did enjoy it quite a bit at first, but as the characters revealed their true colors I became less than enthusiastic.

A quote (Grace recollects her former life):

“My mind was blank and terrified, unable to fathom what had brought my handsome and worldly lover to his knees in a patch of dirt that was not a rich and earthy loam built up through generations of natural processes, but a combination of horse dung and wash water and boot scrapings and kitchen scraps that were too spoiled for even the ragamuffins to eat. Then I realized with a shock that seemed to leap like primordial fire from Henry’s blazing eyes to my own that the thing that had brought Henry to his knees in that filthy courtyard was me.”

Recommend it to?
Anyone interested in reading a story of survival & psychological ambiguity. At the moment it has a rating of 4.05 on Goodreads.

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