Saving Grace: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
Posted by Frank Burns
Grace Winter is both the narrator and the protagonist of this shipwreck drama. Fictionally set two years after the sinking of the Titanic, and on the cusp of the outbreak of war in 1914, the narrative throws us directly into a lifeboat drama, filled with 37 survivors of a sunken transatlantic liner making its way to America.
But none of the expected turmoil of the sinking ship here. That had already been played out a thousand times in the drama of the Empress Alexandra’s much more illustrious forebear, the Titanic. Charlotte Rogan, the author of The Lifeboat, decided instead to throw us hook, line and sinker into the theatricals of the moral issues thrown up by the trauma of surviving three weeks adrift on a lifeboat. No time wasted here in the page-turning cinematics of thousands of tons of bruised metal slowly sinking to the depths, when the meat of the story of who gets to eat and drink what, of who volunteers to jump boat to save the majority, of who rises triumphant midst the social and political tensions of this little community thrown together on the high seas, is all the more engaging.
I have much praise for the the life-defining ethical issues that are confronted head on, within the context of a situation that could happen at any time (and has happened from time to time in the real world). There is a lot of fodder here for book clubs and reading groups to get their teeth into, and not just in English-speaking countries, but the world over, now that it is to be translated into 18 languages (perhaps some measure of its success as a piece of fiction).
The texture of its narrative, however, is its principal weakness. The environment of desperation in the lifeboat is not convincingly created, nor are the defining characteristics of the lifeboat survivors entirely plausible. You never really get the full sense of the appalling suffering of the lifeboat occupants. But in the context of the author’s first sally into the world of fiction, these latter observations may be a little mealy-mouthed, and Charlotte Rogan should be encouraged and praised as she continues to develop her own style and genre within the world of fiction.