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The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

If you want to read this book, I strongly suggest that you skip this review and come back another day. I think it is best to go into this book not knowing what it is all about.

On the side, after 20 odd days away from blogging I’m back!

I have been going on a slight reading binge on three new female authors who surprisingly turn out to be of high calibre for plot and writing. (I said I’m surprise here not because it is derogatory remark on women writers but it is very rare for me to read three books in a row that I equally loved!) The three are The Lifeboat, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and Carry the One by Carol Anshaw.  First, The Lifeboat:

What is it:

I was to stand trial for my life. I was 22-year-old. I had been married for ten weeks and a widow for six.

In the summer of 1914, the Empress Alexandra, a magnificent transatlantic liner, suffers a mysterious explosion en route to New York City. On board are Henry Winter, a rich banker, and his young new wife, Grace. Henry manages to secure a place in a lifeboat for Grace. But the survivors quickly realises it is overloaded and could sink at any moment. For any to live, some must die.

As the castaways battle the elements, and each other, Grace watches and waits. She has learned the value of patience – her journey to a life of glittering privilege has been far from straightforward. Now she knows that life is in jeopardy, and her very survival is at stake.

Over the course of three perilous weeks, the passengers on the lifeboat plot, scheme, gossip and console one another while sitting inches apart. Their deepest beliefs about goodness, humanity and God are tested to the limit as they begin to discover what they will do in order to survive.

Why I read it: I am fascinated with stories about human under extreme condition.  I remember I was in a team building exercise and because I’m an introvert and hardly the sort who command a presence in a crowd, I was the last few that got pick to be on a “lifeboat”. I watched the movie Titanic for umpteenth time and I was wondering why is it that they always only have lifeboats that are available for half or a fraction of the number of passengers on board? Why?

What I thought:

I thought this book kept me reading and thinking all the way.

The prose is contemplative and careful which makes me feel like the way people write in the early 20th century or it may be the way the protagonist Grace thought process works i.e. choosing her words carefully and filtering and censoring what she should or should not say about what happened in the lifeboat.

The lifeboat can carry a maximum of 40 people and there were 39 on the boat. On a still day it is fine but the boat has sunk very low and water sips into the boat. There has to be bailers who bail water out of the boat constantly. For the majority to live, some may have to die.

John Hardie with his seafaring and hunting skills became the natural leader and help kept the people on the lifeboat alive. But even Hardie seems to harbour not altogether altruistic intention to save lives. There are also the strong women, Mrs Grant and Hannah who are just as strong as deadly as the men. There were three Italian sisters, a Deacon, Mr. Hoffman, Mary Annn and Greta less than a dozen characters that you have to know (fortunately, not all 39 on the boat, phew!).

It was interesting to read about the routine that people on the boat adopted on daily ration of food and water, including daily practicalities of going to the toilet and taking turns to row and sleep because of the limited space in the boat. The state of mind of starvation and emancipation was described aptly and vividly.

I like the courtroom scene and Grace’s dialogue with her psychologist just as much. I thought it was a welcoming change for all the times being at sea but also a better insight on what Grace actually thinks. There are hints in Grace’s account of her time at sea, written at the behest of her lawyers, that she is not always telling the whole truth, especially when she lapses into legalese borrowed from the convoluted arguments about morality and responsibility that are spun at the trial. Much of what we know about her comes from her effect on others: the glances of men, the suspicion of women “You’re not as weak as you pretend to be,” hisses her co-defendent Hannah. Hints also came from a glimpse of her personal life as the weaker and more dependent between the two sisters. I came to the book not knowing much about Grace, but as the story goes on I learnt not to trust what Grace said that much.

I don’t like the women who whine and cried on board nor I warm up to Grace who doesn’t seem to do anything much except plotting her survival and align her own allegiance to the person in charge.

My only complaint about the book is (avert your eyes as this could be a spoiler) that:

I don’t believe people actually volunteer to be thrown overboard just because they drew a short straw. I thought it is naïve and foolish to think anyone who jumped off the boat voluntarily. I expect a little bit drama or a bit of struggle or fight on the lifeboat, but that wasn’t the case. I was not convinced by theory of why some things happened. It would have been a 5-star for me if it hasn’t for some parts that I have to withheld my belief about the statements).

Spoiler ends.

Questions abound from this book: Who should be sacrificed? The men or the women? Should the men go overboard and let the women and children live? Or should the men live because they will be the strongest and most likely chance of getting any of them home? Should they follow Hardie’s authority which seems to get them nowhere or should they choose another leader which can get them somewhere? Can women make a good leader? Are some characters appeared likeable and meek so that they are protected to the very end? Are events under human’s control or are they not? Can anyone survive with their humanity intact? Are the ones who murder a murderer or saviour?

I simply love a book that makes me think a lot!

Favourite lines:

The idea of Mr. Hardie’s cruelty was something to which my thoughts continue to return – certainly it was horrendous, certainly none of the rest of us would have had the strength to make the horrific and instantaneous decisions required of a leader at that point, and certainly it is this that saved us. I question whether it can even be called cruelty when any other action would have meant our certain death.  – page 11

When we exited the courtroom at the end of the day, a knot of reports was waiting for us. “Why did you survive?” they called out. “can you tell us the source of your strength?”

‘What is this? A witch trial? Is the only way we can prove our innocence by drowning?’ I replied that perhaps there was a more profound point to be made about innocence, that perhaps a person could not be both alive and innocent. – page 238

Final words:

I can go on and on talking about this book which I think makes a very good book club discussion. The book makes me think about leadership style and influence, group think and team dynamics, politics, God, religion, luck and moral dilemma between being right and doing everything possible to survive. As a reader, you have to make up your own mind about the true motivation of the characters on the boat. Nothing is spelt out for you.

A deceivingly simple plot which makes you think in different ways long after you put the book down, and secretly wished that you will never, ever get caught in a lifeboat situation in your life. A commendable debut, I highly recommend this book.


Paperback. Publisher: Virago 2012; Length: 277 pages; Setting: somewhere in the Atlantic ocean. Source: Westminster Library copy. Finished reading on the 6th November 2012.

Other views:

Simon@Savidgereads: I was completely won over by ‘The Lifeboat’, enthralled in fact, so much so that would you believe it… I wanted more! At a deceptive 288 pages Rogan manages to pack in so much in terms of plot, back story, twists, turns and red herrings it is amazing that the book isn’t another few hundred pages long.

Judith@leeswammes: I thought the story aboard very beautiful and exciting. The court case and the story surrounding it, I found much less interesting.

Book Monkey scribbles: Overall, this is a great page-turner of a novel with the sort of plot that keeps you hooked and wanting to find out more. It will make you think a little about humanity’s struggle for survival and it will make you ask yourself questions that you may never have thought of before, the kind of questions that you would never think about outside situations and tragedies like this. But ultimately, it fails to deliver an emotional impact and left me feeling disconnected from the situation and everyone in it.

About the writer:

Charlotte Rogan graduated from Princeton University in 1975. She worked at various jobs, mostly in the fields of architecture and engineering, before teaching herself to write and staying home to bring up triplets. Her childhood experiences among a family of sailors and the discovery of an old criminal law text provided inspiration for The Lifeboat, her first novel. After many years in Dallas and a year in Johannesburg, she and her husband now live in Connecticut. The Lifeboat is being translated into 18 languages.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


14 thoughts on “The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

  1. Thank you for such a comprehensive review

    Posted by Mystica | November 18, 2012, 5:03 am
  2. Glad you liked it so much! Brilliant review. The book made me think, too. I also loved the writing style, a bit old-fashioned but it was still easy to read.

    Posted by Leeswammes | November 18, 2012, 9:27 am
  3. I wasn’t as impressed by this as you were. So much of it didn’t feel realistic to me – I agree with your spoiler. No one is going to just sacrifice themselves without a fight (with the possible exception of a parent saving a child) It could have been a thought provoking read, but I was so distracted by all the unlikely plot threads that I couldn’t stop and really think about the issues involved. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Posted by farmlanebooks | November 18, 2012, 11:12 am
    • Jackie,
      I think the volunteering was a bit off for me! I was expecting a little bit more actions and thrills. I rated it high because the book makes me think and guess a lot, so any book that can make me think is good. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | November 19, 2012, 12:13 pm
  4. I thought it dragged in parts but of course having an unreliable narrator always makes a book fun and a page turner!

    Posted by rhapsodyinbooks | November 18, 2012, 12:37 pm
  5. Yes, I agree – I was expecting a struggle. Maybe I am a horrible person but I don’t think I would have just accepted the short straw when there was a chance of survival. I liked this book for it’s thought provoking questions too, but for me it didn’t go quite far enough. Have you read Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch? It’s also about a shipwreck but much more gritty & realistic.

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | November 18, 2012, 7:46 pm
    • Hi Sam,
      In hindsight I think I was a bit generous in my rating for Lifeboat. I didn’t know Jamrach’s Menagerie was about a shipwreck! I must read that one day. Thanks for letting me know Sam. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | November 19, 2012, 4:09 pm
  6. I read Jackies review part of me things this isn’t for me I like the hitchcock film set in a lifeboat ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | November 19, 2012, 5:28 pm
  7. Oooo sounds interesting. I do love a book with moral dilemmas. I’m trying to imagine whether I would be brave and virtuous enough to cast myself out of a lifeboat to save the rest, if that were the deal and we’d made the deal. I think if I didn’t fight about it in the first place, I’d quickly regret it once I was out in the water. But too late by then!

    Posted by Jenny | November 20, 2012, 2:39 am

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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