No sinking feeling with sea nightmare

Joe Schmidt

THE Lifeboat Charlotte Rogan Virago Press

Charlotte Rogan's first novel The Lifeboat makes interesting reading. The narrative is simple but considers weighty themes, raising questions about morality and survival in the isolation of the open sea.

Set in the summer of 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War, 22-year-old Grace Winter is travelling to New York with her newly acquired husband, Henry, a successful banker.

The story is centred around Grace's recollection of events leading up to the sinking of the Empress Alexandra and the days spent floundering in an overloaded lifeboat hoping to be rescued. Grace's harrowing but patchy account is told in flashback while she, along with two other survivors, await trial after events on the lifeboat led to a number of deaths.

Inevitably, with the lifeboat carrying too many people and the weather deteriorating, decisions must be made. The reader is drawn in as survivors determine who should remain in the boat.

Rogan asks us to consider how they might cope? What decisions they might make and at what point their instinct for survival would supersede their moral code?

In their urgency to escape the wash of the sinking vessel, the natural leader on board, able-bodied seaman John Hardie, leaves a boy languishing in the ocean. He is immediately pitted against the 'sturdy' Mrs Ursula Grant, who demands that they turn around to search for the drowning boy.


The power struggle between Hardie and Mrs Grant continues throughout the ordeal with shades of Golding's Lord of the Flies, but in more hostile environs.

The imaginary 'beast' from Golding's novel was fuelled by the imaginations of young boys. In the lifeboat, gossip, rumour and self preservation are the catalyst for mistrust and survivors start to side with either Hardie or Grant.

Determining who is right is blurred by perspective. Grace is a complex and self-absorbed character. There is a degree of frustration in this as we want to know exactly what happened among the survivors. Events are inevitably coloured by the person recounting them. However, it is difficult to identify with the cold and manipulative Grace, making it more difficult for readers to become emotionally attached to the survivors and their plight.

Grace reveals herself early as she contrives to ensnare her wealthy new husband. Then there is suspicion about how she managed to get onto the lifeboat when it was already over burdened and being lowered. She is intolerant of the 'weak' Mary Ann, mocking her but then clinging to her when there is mutual benefit.

Initially, Grace idolises Hardie, while also yearning for complicity from the strong and determined Hannah.

The author deftly handles the long days trapped on a lifeboat. Personalities emerge, alliances are made and conflicts simmer.

Rogan's story is a good one. Well worth reading.