[based on a review copy from Netgalley]
Review originally posted here: http://irisonbooks.com/2012/04/14/the-lifeboat-by-charlotte-rogan/
In the summer of 1914, an ocean liner carrying newlyweds Grace and Henry across the Atlantic to meet Henry’s family, sinks. Grace manages to get on a lifeboat with the help of Henry. Soon, the rescued find out that although the lifeboats are said to have a capacity of 40, it cannot hold the 38 people on there. Here, Grace faces another three weeks of survival, as for any of the survivors to live, some must die.
At the beginning of the book, the reader finds out that Grace, along with two other women that were on the lifeboat, is on trial for murder on account of the weeks she spent on the lifeboat. The story of Grace’s life on the boat is the account written from her personal memories that is to be used as evidence in court.
And so, The Lifeboat is not just the story of the horror of a shipwreck, life on a lifeboat, loss, and the length humans will go to to survive, although that is very much part of the novel. Instead, it is the added layer of Grace’s narration that makes this book so fascinating. Grace is not exactly a trustworthy or likeable character. She falls firmly in the category of unreliable narrators, which the reader finds out throughout the novel, as she leaves out details, rewrites previously mentioned stories, and repeatedly infers discussions about the nature of memories and remembrance. As a reader, you constantly need to readjust your image of Grace and the events on the lifeboat: is she an innocent girl or a master manipulator, and what exactly happened? All of it makes that reading The Lifeboat is a fascinating experience, but also a little creepy at times.
Another element that I enjoyed is that the story of the power struggle between Mrs Grant and Mr Hardie (a ship’s crewman) mirrors women’s struggle for emancipation. Grace is caught up in the middle of this power struggle, in which her decision to cast in her lot with one or the other might directly affect her chance of survival. It is interesting that Mrs Grant and Hannah hold on to their belief of equal rights for woman, to such an extent that they may diminish their chances of surviving the trial. Grace is more calculating. She seems to realise that while circumstances on the lifeboat, with a higher ratio of women compared to men, and its isolatedness from the world outside, may have favoured Mrs Grant’s influence from time to time, back in the “real world”, it are men who judge whether they are guilty or not. So Grace relents and wears feminine attire, while Hannah insists on wearing trousers, unwilling to give in to convention. But this does not mean that Grace is not aware of what she is doing:
“From the beginning, the press and others were more sympathetic to me than they were to Mrs. Grant and Hannah, who early on pointed this out, saying, ‘Let’s be honest, Grace. You’re just innocent enough to get away with it.’ Whenever anyone tells you a thing like that, you’re bound to try to defend yourself, and I responded that she and Mrs. Grant were the ones who were playing to an audience by insisting on going so far against the grain of the public’s expectations. But eventually I had the realization that we all had to decide when to fight convention and when to accede to it, and in that, the three of us were not so different after all.”
“Sometimes I wonder if they would have been incarcerated if Mrs. Grant had been a man.”
Nor that she agrees with a subordinate position for women. She is aware that women’s chances of fair treatment are tied up with men’s expectations, and repeatedly reflects on her, and women’s, position throughout the story. Grace’s story, and the story of her fellow passengers on the lifeboat, is not just a story of how far humans are willing to go to survive, but it is also a story of survival as a woman in a world that is defined by men.