Well, I just finished Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat and I am really glad I have no plans to leave dry land any time soon. Even the river outside my window is looking somewhat menacing. But come to think of it, so is my fellow man.
Rogan’s premise is not a new one: what happens when a group of people are trapped in a small boat on the Atlantic for way too long? But you know, it’s the way the tale is told that makes the difference. And while I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed this novel, I don’t think enjoyment is the point. It’s provocative. It’s haunting. And it’s incredibly convincing about a primal nightmare.
Our narrator is Grace Winter, a twenty-two-year-old widow. (Watch the names, which are always plausible, but always full of meaning.) She’s on trial after her three weeks at sea in a lifeboat following the wreck of the ocean liner Empress Alexandra, in 1914. Her attorneys have asked her to write a retrospective diary of her days on the water. The diary entries alternate irregularly with chapters that fill in Grace’s background, marriage, and the trial itself. The voice throughout is Grace’s own.
She makes no particular effort to charm. It becomes clear that she is one cool customer, approaching life from a very practical point of view. It seems that her handsome young husband Henry was engaged to another woman when he met Grace. And that the meeting was anything but accidental. And that Grace had no qualms about using sex to capture him. Here’s a telling detail: after a hiccup in their relationship Henry comes to see Grace to explain himself. “I had worn a pale dress and outlined my eyes so they looked big in my ashen face. It wasn’t a costume or disguise, exactly, but a form of communication.” Ah. Communication. Of course.
If this is how she behaves on dry land, how might she act when her life is at stake on the open sea? And, equally important, when her freedom is at stake back in civilization? I’ll say only that Grace seems to believe what she’s telling us — most of the time. So the narrative has a shifty, constantly flickering quality.
But that’s water for you, and water dominates The Lifeboat. Golly, this book is wet! There’s water sloshing around in the bottom of the boat, sometimes a terrifying amount. The boat’s overloaded, riding so low that the sea is constantly splashing in over the gunwales. The characters’ clothes are constantly sodden which may sound petty but it’s 1914. Think about those layers of petticoats and skirts or long woolen trousers, hanging on your legs on a cold North Atlantic night, soaking up salt water, rubbing your skin raw. Rogan’s really good on the symptoms of fatigue, cold, and above all dehydration. People go mad, die, vanish. Grace fades in and out of awareness, or at least tells us she does. When rescue comes, it’s anticlimactic. After everything that’s happened in the lifeboat, a bunch of Icelandic fishermen with fresh water and blankets are not going to fix things. It’s not clear to me, at the end, that any rescue could ever help Grace. Or — and here’s the cold trickle down the spine — help any of us.