All Aboard the Skylark – ‘The Lifeboat’ by Charlotte Rogan

Due to a small family emergency, it’s been over a week since I finished ‘The Lifeboat’.  It speaks volumes that as I try to write my review, I’m struggling to remember much about it.  The premise is simple; this is a survivor’s tale.  A survivor of a transatlantic shipping accident.  Grace escaped in an overcrowded lifeboat.  From the outset, we know her husband is dead and that she is on trial for murder.  The novel opens with her presenting the account she wrote for the lawyers defending her case.

‘The Lifeboat’ starts promisingly enough.  Grace details her fellow evacuees, and the terror of being adrift in the ocean.  There are hard decisions to be made about who can be let in to the boat.  It’s already overcrowded, there is no room for any extras, even a stranded child.  The narrative quickly centres around ‘Hardie’, an employee of the shipping company, and the only person with any real sailing experience.  He organises the survivors and works out bailing rotas and the rationing of supplies.  He is rough and taciturn, with no time for the foolishness he perceives in others.  He is their saviour, but many of the boats occupants do not like him.

So, the scene is set.  Tempers will fray, someone (maybe more) will die, Grace will survive, but what will happen in the meantime?  At first I found Rogan’s story convincing.  She assembles a varied and interesting group of characters.  Grace is a spoiled rich girl fallen on hard times, who thanks to her determination has married a rich man. A man she left on a sinking ship.  She loved him, yes, but also she wonders, what will happen to his money?  As food and drinking water become scarce, motives and intentions are picked over, and weaknesses exploited.  Alliances are made and broken.  The other passengers wonder how Grace ended up on the ship, did her husband buy her passage? Was it at the expense of other passengers?  Why does Hardie want to avoid the other lifeboats they see floating on the waves?  Is doing so their best chance of survival or does he have more sinister motives?

As the sea becomes rougher, and the boat starts to take in water, there are many reasons why any number of the survivors should not make the cut.  How will it be resolved?  The opening half of this novel is taut and exciting, before reaching a crescendo, but then for me it all goes wrong.  The narrative switches from being Grace’s account of the voyage, to her time in court, and with her psychiatrist. Who survived from the boat and who didn’t is laid out plainly, and the survivor politics forgotten.  Instead the novel becomes about the treatment of women in Edwardian society.  The shift is a peculiar one.  Although gender was definitely an issue in the lifeboat, the narrative was driven by human interaction.  Once Grace is in the legal system, the novel’s humanity ebbs, and the suspense drains away.

Outside of their predicament Rogan’s characters suddenly feel two-dimensional; copied and pasted from Period Fiction 101. The emotional power of the book leaches out, and it limps along to a reasonable but unremarkable conclusion. The power to be found in ‘The Lifeboat’ was derived from the claustrophobia of the boat and without it, there is little tension.  I am struggling to remember what happened at the end of the novel, or why I might have cared.  ‘The Lifeboat’ is never a bad book, but it fails to live up to its promise.  For me, the switch from survivor crisis to courtroom drama didn’t work.  This is Rogan’s first novel and she is writer with some great novels ahead of her.  Sadly this isn’t one of them.

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