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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

I seem to have spent this month finally getting round to some of the "books EVERY other blogger has already read" from the last year or two. You know how it goes, you read the reviews, believe the hype, need to buy yourself a copy right now this minute and then leave it languishing for months in the middle of Mount TBR in favour of newer, more exciting reads. So I apologise in advance if this blog seems to be sooooo last year for the next few weeks. I just can't resist offering my own two cents on top of everyone else's!
The year is 1914 and for Grace Winter it's a time for new beginnings as she and her new husband, Henry, are making a trip on board the Empress Alexandra after their honeymoon period in Europe. The voyage is a tense one for numerous reasons. Whisperings of war murmur around the Captain's table, but Grace is preoccupied with worries closer to home as she prepares to meet Henry's well-to-do family for the first time. These anxieties are eclipsed when the ship runs into trouble and she finds herself stranded on an overloaded lifeboat with 38 near-strangers. Little does she know that she will soon be on trial for her life.

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.


HISTORICAL FICTION

9 comments:

  1. It's always good to focus on the TBR instead of reading new books. I'm not sure why so many people loved this book; it was interesting and gave me lots to think about but I wouldn't consider it a must read

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  2. I did adore this book but I wonder how I would react on a second reading (which I do actually intend to do, unusually). The writing definitely makes the entire novel, it completely held me throughout. I did love the way it makes you think about how you'd act in that situation. Great review :)

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  3. This is one of those books that I picked up and put down a number of times and eventually left off buying. When I started reading your review I was loving the way you described the lyrical writing and also the period that the novel is set but then it went down hill a bit. Frankly, I'm more into character led stories these days. If I can't give a doodah about them then what's the point after all? If you like books with a lyrical writing style and great description (plus great characters) have you tried Susan Fletcher. I love her books. My first experience was Witch Light - the writing is so lovely. The first 40 or so pages you really need to press yourself to get into but there's a reason for that and once you become absorbed you care so much for the characters and you have to keep going back to read particular sentences.
    I love her books. Rave over!!
    Thanks for the review. It makes me feel somewhat justified that I decided not to pick this up after all!
    Lynn :D

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  4. Sounds like a great story. Perhaps I'm going to pick it up later :)

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  5. I agree with you, this book was good but it was hard to feel anything for the characters. I also wanted a lot more miserable stuff!
    Have you read Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch? It deals with a shipwreck and it absolutely fantastic.

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  6. It's good to read your thoughts on this one, Marie. I did like it but something held back from being a favourite.

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  7. I'm sure I'll be able to form some much more eloquent thoughts on this in a couple of weeks BUT having finished this one only this morning (it makes me feel better that you're another blogger that holds back on occasion from the crowd for fear of disappointment!)I think this book has suffered from the hype. Although the idea was interesting and some of the underlying psychological issues were intriguing, it wasn't nearly well-written enough to be as evocative as I might have hoped. Jamrach's Menagerie is far better.

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  8. Agree with your thoughts - a lot of promise, but nobody was the kind of character you'd want to have in your life!

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  9. A book is a book is a book ... so don't apologize for reading what you read! ;)

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