The only reason I started reading The Lifeboat is because Amazon promised that I would like it. They’ve recommended it to me for the past two weeks, and my curiosity finally got the better of me. As I’m sure has been made clear by now, I am somewhat picky when it comes to my taste in books – I am open to reading almost anything, but whether I actually enjoy it is another story. In fact, I typically find something to passionately hate about everything I read. Anyway, I am pleased to announce that Amazon actually predicted correctly, and for the first time since starting this blog, I have genuinely enjoyed a novel.
Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat reveals the journal entries of Grace Winter, who survived for three weeks on a lifeboat following the 1914 sinking of the Empress Alexandra. Unfortunately, Grace and two of the other survivors have found themselves on trial for murder, and her attorneys have encouraged her to recount everything that took place in the lifeboat in a journal (thus the entire novel represents Grace’s journal entries). Grace chronicles the progression of emotions and hostilities on the lifeboat as survivors die off and supplies and morale dwindle. The remaining passengers are forced to choose sides as tempers flare between the lifeboat’s self-proclaimed leader and a power-hungry society woman.
The Lifeboat is a compelling and convincing debut novel, and it consistently poses ethical and psychological dilemmas similar to those that I myself faced the time I was trapped on a lifeboat for several weeks. Ok, I was never in a situation even remotely similar to this, but Rogan’s realistically descriptive prose certainly makes one feel as if they are there. What is perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel is the overall ambiguity regarding the true nature of the events. For instance, when Grace addresses the murder, the language creates a vague and dreamlike feeling. This lack of clarity might be intended to mimic her mental state at the time, as tensions were mounting and the survivors had been crammed together for two weeks by the time of the killing. However, it’s important to keep in mind that Grace is on trial for murder, and she is instructed to record these events after the fact in an effort to help her case – for this reason, her reliability as a narrator becomes questionable at best; are her words and feelings genuine, or is she merely trying to save herself?
The tone and feel of The Lifeboat often brings to mind other untrustworthy narrators, such as Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” as well as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” – but only in passing. Rogan’s heroine is intriguing because her mental state is so unclear; while the narrators of Poe and Gilman are obviously several French fries short of a Happy Meal, Grace’s true mental condition remains ambiguous, and frustrating because of it. This ambiguity permeates the entire novel. We are given brief flashbacks of Grace’s previous life, but these moments only make her true nature more difficult to determine. We learn that she essentially steals another woman’s fiancé for the sake of self-preservation, while her own mother has suffered a break from reality due to the suicide of Grace’s father. We are never offered a concrete resolution, making The Lifeboat truly fascinating in a way that is seemingly only possible in a lifeboat scenario (ie, The Life of Pi, which is essentially The Lifeboat meets Water for Elephants – nevertheless, Pi is psychologically complex and a real conversation piece – definitely read it!). Thus, while I have spent the last five years diligently ignoring anything that Amazon has recommended to me, I think I may have to rethink my novel-choosing tactics. Well played, Amazon…well played.