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Desperation, Guile, Hope and Betrayal
on November 20, 2012
The Lifeboat is a tale of desperation, guile, hope and betrayal. It is about 39 people who find themselves in a lifeboat right after their large ship, the Empress Alexandra, sinks. The story takes place in 1914, two years after the sinking of the great ship, the Titanic. As with the Titanic, there was insufficient space on the lifeboats for all the passengers. Supposedly, the lifeboats could fit 39 people but at the last minute the manufacturer reduced the capacity of the lifeboats. However, they did not change the metal tag that said the capacity was 39 people.
So here we have 39 people jockeying for a place on a lifeboat not made to fit them all. A seaman named Hardie takes control of one of the boats and is a natural leader though cold and hard. He controls everything that happens on the boat as it flounders at sea waiting for days and then weeks for a rescue ship that never comes. The survivors eat the fish he spears, the birds that fall from the sky into the ship and find themselves not unlike animals. "The nights were cold, and the more emaciated we became, the less our bodies worked to keep us warm. When I looked at the others, I was shocked to notice their sunken eyes and hollow cheeks...and I knew we had all retreated into memory in order to escape the harsh realities of our plight."
Fear was their constant companion. Along with fear, their true natures were coming out. "The bare bones of our natures were showing. None of us was worth a spit. We were stripped of all decency. I couldn't see that there was anything good or noble left once food and shelter were taken away." The gray areas of morality were very clear. Nothing was black or white. One thing that was clear though was that "I looked around and realized that we were all predators and that we always had been."
Grace is the protagonist of the story and the narrator. However, we don't know how accurate her rendition of events actually is. She keeps her cards close. We do know that she tried to take advantage of things in her life prior to finding herself in this boat. We know that she chose her husband after reading an article in the social pages of her newspaper, knowing he was rich and a good catch. Stealing him didn't phase her, and stealing it was. He was engaged to be married shortly to a woman he'd known most of his life.
In the prologue we find out that Grace and two other women on the boat are in jail awaiting trial for their lives, that Grace's husband is dead, and that her lawyer wants her to write a narrative of her time at sea. This narrative is the book we read. They are on trial for throwing others overboard to save their own lives. How can we believe Grace's tale completely for she is of shaky moral grounding. Couldn't this narrative be written to put her in a good light and make others look bad.
The book reminded me a bit of William Golding's `Lord of the Flies', where a group of boys find themselves stranded on an island and make a government for themselves that subsequently implodes. On the rescue ship, the leadership of Hardie is questioned and after a while two women, Hannah and Mrs. Grant try a coup. Things go from bad to worse. I was also reminded of the great painting by Gericault, The Raft of the Medusa. According to Wikipedia, it depicts the aftermath of a shipwreck where those who survived endured starvation, dehydration, cannibalism and madness.
This is a very readable book, a page-turner, grabbing the reader from page one. It is a book about morality, about the decisions we must make when in dire circumstances and what happens to people when they are placed in life-threatening situations. It is a book about choices and opportunities, faith and fatality. How close is a human being to an animal when placed in a dire situation? The author, Charlotte Rogan is a fine writer with a wonderful grasp of philosophy and psychology. You would never know that this was her first novel.