Doreen's Reviews > The Lifeboat

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
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Aug 04, 12

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Read in August, 2012

Grace Winter, 22, a newlywed, is one of 39 people in an overcrowded lifeboat after an explosion aboard the Empress Alexandra on the eve of World War I. John Hardie, an experienced seaman, takes charge, but power struggles soon ensue since “people are moved primarily by desire for power and fear of others.” Stranded for 21 days, Grace and some others survive, but she and two other women are charged with the murder of another person aboard the boat.

The novel begins and ends with the court trial; the middle is the diary that Grace is asked by her lawyers to write recounting her time aboard the lifeboat. The diary reads much like a nautical Lord of the Flies examining human behaviour in a situation where people are subjected to extreme physical and mental duress so “[t]he bare bones of [people’s] natures [are] showing.”

The novel examines moral choices in extreme situations when “a person’s choices are . . . rarely between right and wrong or between good and evil. . . . [because] people are mostly faced with much murkier options . . . [where] there are no clear signposts marking the better path to take.” For example, “If you take for granted that some or all shall die if no action is taken, should an action be taken to save some?” In other words, is it ethically acceptable to allow or compel the weakest to die so a majority may survive?

Grace proves herself to be an unreliable narrator. She admits as much herself: she discusses the process of recollecting and admits that “forgetting always relates to the life drives, the greatest of which are to reproduce and to avoid death.” In the process of recollecting events for her diary, is she “forgetting” events in order to avoid the death penalty should she be found guilty of murder?

Grace shows negative aspects of her personality so that the reader realizes that she should not be trusted. For example, she is very conniving and manipulative. She describes how she set about meeting the man who would eventually become her husband: she spent a week watching him and figuring out his daily itinerary and regarded his engagement to another woman as “only the mildest of impediments.” Although she tells him that “’I won’t try to influence you’” when he has to decide whether to end his engagement, she nonetheless wore “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. I wanted Henry to see that I wasn’t strong enough to lose him.” She wasn’t trying to influence him?!

Grace’s actions demonstrate her belief that “life depended on the ability to subjugate other creatures to our use.” When Mary Ann, a woman next to her in the lifeboat, irritates her, she suggests she sacrifice herself so the chances of survival would increase for others: “’Why not, Mary Ann? You’d save yourself a lot of suffering by flinging yourself into the sea. You’re going to die anyway, and I’ve heard drowning is far more pleasant than dying of starvation or thirst.” Then she justifies her actions: “Am I to be blamed for this? We do not ask certain ideas to enter our heads and demand that others stay away. I believe that a person is accountable for his actions but not for the contents of his mind.”

The novel makes some interesting observations about men and women. Grace wonders whether one of the other women charged with murder “would have been incarcerated if [she] had been a man.” Though she claims to be in favour of women’s suffrage, Grace is not beyond using feminine wiles. For instance, one of Grace’s co-defendants wears only black and the other wears trousers, but Grace dresses to soften her appearance in front of the male jury so it is not surprising when she is asked: “’I am sure a jury of men suits you just fine, doesn’t it?’” Grace admits to “arranging that sweet vapid smile on my face that was so useful during the trial.” Grace’s observation that “men rarely knew what decisions a woman had or hadn’t made” suggests that she sees them as being as capable of being manipulated as women.

This book is definitely worth reading. It forces one to consider what one would do in similar circumstances. Would you “choose the nobler part and jump overboard in order to save others”? Would your will to survive be so strong that you would be totally ruthless, acknowledge that “we [are] all predators,” and see the death of another as “some sort of natural selection”?
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