"An enthralling story of survival at sea.... One hell of a debut." (Jonathan Raban,Â New York Review of Books)
"The most remarkable achievement within The Lifeboat is how neatly it exceeds, and defies, expectations." (Scott Martelle, Los Angeles Times)
"An eerie, powerful debut you'll want to race through, but try to resist the urge. A slower read reveals a psychological depth that'll leave you thinking." (Helen Rogan, People)
A beautifully constructed first novel.... Rogan crafts a harrowing, suspenseful take of survival.... The Lifeboat raises forever fascinating questions without moral posturing or sentimentality. (Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today)
"Tantalizing.... A tremendously fast-paced read... A psychological horror story, this novel makes a fine period piece.... Rogan steersÂ The LifeboatÂ with a remarkably assured hand. (Mary Polls,Â Time)
“A singular disadvantage of the sea,” Stephen Crane wrote in his 1897 story “The Open Boat,” based on his experiences on a lifeboat off the coast of Florida, “lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important.” The unrelenting sea and its vast indifference to the shipwrecked is a subject that has always attracted both writers and readers. We are fascinated, and appalled, by how quickly men and women are brought to a childlike state, curled in tight on themselves and unable to call on their own free will, sanity or morality. Most riveting of all, perhaps, is the tension that emerges between extreme emotional and physical reduction and an expanded, even predatory, desire to survive.
Grace Winter, the antiheroine of Charlotte Rogan’s impressive, harrowing first novel, “The Lifeboat,” is nothing if not a survivor. Twenty-two years old and clearly very attractive, she narrates the book with panache — and a good dose of unreliability — insisting she lives by the principle “God helps those who help themselves.” When the ocean liner transporting Grace and her (very rich) new husband to the United States on the eve of World War I suffers a catastrophic explosion, she wedges herself into Lifeboat 14, along with 38 others. There she staves off the mounting hysteria around her and aligns herself with John Hardie, an experienced sailor who takes control of the food and water and makes instantaneous, God-like decisions. He steers the boat away from a boy clinging to a plank and, shortly after, delivers a brutal kick to the face of a swimmer trying to climb aboard.
In fact, as Grace and her fellow castaways soon discover, they are already perilously overcrowded. For any to survive, a few must volunteer to go over the side, and you can bet Grace won’t be one of them. “If Mr. Hardie hadn’t beaten people away,” she admits with delicious coolness, “I would have had to do it myself.”
Framed by scenes of Grace after the ordeal — she has been charged, along with two other survivors, with the murder of one of their companions — the bulk of the novel traps us in the disintegrating world of the lifeboat, buffeted by squalls and by a brewing power struggle between the darkly appealing Mr. Hardie and an unflappable older woman named Mrs. Grant. With this clashing surrogate father and mother, Rogan dramatizes the novel’s central moral issue: is it ethically acceptable to allow (or compel) the weakest to die so the majority may live? She refuses to make absolute judgments, leaving the verdict in our hands.
Rogan writes viscerally about the desperate condition of the castaway, of what it is like to be “surrounded on four sides by walls of black water” or to be so thirsty your tongue swells to the size of “a dried and hairless mouse.” But it’s her portrait of Grace, who is by turns astute, conniving, comic and affecting, that drives the book. Like her literary forebear Becky Sharp, Grace wants a great deal from this life and feels justified in using whatever wiles might be necessary to secure her own happy ending. Of her seduction of her husband she explains: “I had worn 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.”
As Rogan proves with this indelible character, there’s a profound truth and even beauty in Grace’s degree of self-loyalty. Our humanity demands resistance to the forces that would obliterate us. Or, as Crane’s protagonist in “The Open Boat” cries to a universe he knows is deaf and implacable: “Yes, but I love myself.”Continue reading the main story
By Charlotte Rogan
278 pp. A Reagan Arthur Book/Little, Brown & Company. $24.99.