I must start by praising Charlotte Rogan's lyrical writing in The Lifeboat which is a pleasure to read. The descriptions of the sea are beautiful and at times I found myself re-reading sentences to savour every word. I really appreciated the way she conveys the majestic and terrifying power of the waves.
This novel raises some meaty ethical and philosophical questions. It is interesting to consider the way in which the different characters react under pressure and to what extent that influences their survival. Some turn to God, some (such as the seaman Hardie) adopt a more practical approach, some become hysterical, others keep their cool. The high-pressure, claustrophobic setting reminded me in some ways of Lord Of The Flies. Like that book, it made me think about my own character and how I cope in emergency situations. I don't think I am naturally extrovert, but do I stand my ground or am I easily influenced by others who are more forthright? It is difficult to imagine what we might be capable of in such an extreme scenario when the survival instinct is in overdrive.
The aftermath of the incident also gave me plenty to muse over. The victims of the shipwreck will forever be revered and remembered as angels, even martyrs, despite the fact that several of them may have been absolute scoundrels in life. Hints are dropped that Henry, Hardie and some of the other passengers may have been plotting some underhanded schemes. But it is the survivors, Grace and the other women, who are given a hard time. The jury, the public, the press - all are quick to judge these ladies, though none can even begin to imagine the physical and psychological hardship they faced during their ordeal at sea.
"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"
It is true that their innocence is questionable, but as I said above - it is difficult to know where to draw the line when judging a person's actions taken in the name of self-preservation, when their natural fight-or-flight instincts have kicked in. Given the historical setting, I also wondered if the accused had been treated differently because they were women.
Unfortunately, despite its strengths I could only give this novel a fairly average overall rating simply because I just could not muster up any feelings for any of the characters. I felt disengaged from their plight and didn't care who lived, who died, who was guilty or otherwise. I think for a book of this nature it is essential for the reader to really care about the characters involved and I just didn't. Something about it felt a bit half-done and there could have been much more detail. There are lots of funny looks exchanged between characters that were probably loaded with meaning that I just didn't understand. I wanted more to convince me that Grace truly is an unreliable narrator, more on Hardie's mysterious agenda and his dispute with Blake, more on Henry and his wheeling and dealing. Subtlety and ambiguity can be great and I'm not saying that I necessarily wanted every single plot strand tied up in a neat bow, but a bit more tidying up at the end would have been perfect.
Lots (lots and lots!) of others have read this book and absolutely adored it, so it's a shame it didn't quite wow me in the same way. While the story didn't win me over, it certainly sparked lots of contemplation and reflection and for that reason I think it would be an excellent book club choice - I bet it would create loads of discussion. I'll be interested in whatever Rogan works on next as I really enjoyed taking the time to read her prose.