Two years after the loss of Titanic, and just after the outbreak of WWI, the ocean liner Empress Alexandra sinks. There is an explosion and a fire on board, leading to panic and the launching of just over half the available lifeboats. Grace Winter, newly married to Henry, is placed by her husband aboard Lifeboat 14, one of the last to get away safely. At first, it seems as though their only problem is to get the lifeboat as far away from the ship as possible. However, having escaped the initial danger, those on board - thirty nine in all, including thirty one women and one child - have to face the harsh reality that the rescue they are awaiting may not be coming.
When we meet Grace, a most resourceful and realistic heroine, she is in prison on trial for her life. Her lawyers suggest she try to recreate the events of those twenty one days after the ship went down, and her diary is what we read, as the story of what happened and why she is on trial unfolds. This is an excellent, atmospheric and well written novel, which draws you in and refuses to let you stop reading. Grace tells her story simply and well, feeling no doubt in her actions, although we readers are often unsure she should be so certain of her belief. In fact, Grace's status seems as unreliable and shifting as the sea the boat floats precariously on.
As Grace narrates her story, she says, "the bare bones of our natures were showing," and it is hard to disagree with her. Yet, it is also impossible to judge how people could, or would, react in such a desperate situation. Certainly, the situation in the Lifeboat leads to those on board exhibiting the best and worst that humanity has to offer - from disagreements, discord and jealousy to self sacrifice. If this novel does not win awards, I will be stunned. This is an excellent book and would be ideal for a reading group looking for an intelligent and thought provoking novel to discuss.