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Men and Women, all in the same boat,
This review is from: The Lifeboat (Paperback)For the most part, Charlotte Rogan's The Lifeboat is much like any many other books and films (Hitchcock's Lifeboat inevitably comes to mind) that deal with the desperate lengths people living in close quarters will be driven to in order to survive a catastrophic event, as well as exploring how different characters and personalities react when pushed to and beyond their limits of endurance. The vast majority of Rogan's novel explores the dynamic between what initially starts out as 39 people over the course of three weeks on the high seas following the sinking of their transatlantic liner, the Empress Alexandra, in 1914. What introduces an element of suspense and opens a wider context on events however is the fact that the narrator, Grace Winter, is writing her account in preparation for a court case, so we know that there are survivors from the wreck, but also that some serious drama has occurred over these three weeks that needs to be accounted for in a court of law.
That's a good enough hook, and Rogan's writing is strong and vivid in its account of the struggle for survival, the conditions on the over-populated lifeboat, and of the tensions and psychological states of those on board, and the conflict that inevitably ensues. The Lifeboat then is a story about survival, but the question of how to survive extends beyond the three weeks at sea, and the novel has other ambitions and implications that relate to the period - the First World War has just broken out - as well as to the roles assigned to men and women, how they are expected to behave and how, when pushed to a crisis, those roles are about to change.
The split between men and women is most pronounced by the divisions that take place on the lifeboat, where eventually a battle for dominance arises between Mr Hardie, the only crew member on board and the only person with experience of the seas, and Mrs Grant. The decisions that have to be made for survival are difficult and there are no easy answers, requiring sacrifice on the part of some of the men in the overcrowded boat. The means by which these decisions are carried out however (this is a period before women even had the right to vote), and the motivations behind them (there are suspicions that Hardie is hiding something of value on board) are questioned, particularly by the strong women on board. There are, it seems to me, particularly with this being set at the very start of the war, other social implications about the nature of sacrifice and survival in a war context and how it applies to men and women.
This is reflected also in how events play out back in New York, around the trial, where Grace works over in her mind what exactly happened, but she also questions her own role in events, as a young woman who has just been married to a rich banker, Henry, now believed lost with the sinking of the ship. Inevitably, particularly in the extreme situation in which she has been placed, she is uncertain of her own role in events and how much of it has been determined by the will of others. This clearly has wider relevance and, considering Grace's past before she married Henry and the circumstances in which she married him, it makes Grace a rather more complex figure and answers consequently are not so easy to come by. The Lifeboat is then a vivid and dramatic piece of writing on the level of a high-seas battle for survival, but taking in the moral and social implications of the time, the novel has other intriguing depths that give the reader a lot more to think about, raising questions about the nature of men and women and whether the roles they are expected to play are fundamentally any different today.