The relationship between strong leadership and survival in an emergency are at the core of The Lifeboat, the debut novel by Charlotte Rogan. Speaking up, taking a stand, and following through with decisive action are usually recognized as qualities of an effective leader in a crisis situation. However, when the people you lead are adrift at sea on an overcrowded lifeboat, sometimes holding your tongue can be more effective.
The Lifeboat begins in a courtroom. Twenty-two-year-old Grace Winter is on trial, along with two other women, for a crime yet to be revealed. The story unfolds as Grace tells it, through alternating narratives of the current trial and her journaling of the three weeks spent in a lifeboat after the sinking of a luxury ocean liner in the Atlantic, two years after the sinking of the Titanic. Thirty-nine people are adrift in the filled-past-capacity boat, and the claustrophobic conditions only add to the mental anguish of the survivors. A power struggle between the sole crew member onboard and a strong-willed female passenger seethes beneath the surface of the group.
All of the usual survival story arcs are at play here—lack of food and water, beating down of the sun, reliance on wind and weather-- but Rogan skillfully pushes these into the background. The true heart of the story is the survival of a sense of society and morality. Initially, the men take charge and make decisions for the group. As the days stretch on without rescue, the balance of power begins to shift. The women, led by the deceptively matron-like Mrs. Grant, soon take matters into their own hands. How will these actions be judged upon rescue?
The idea for The Lifeboat came to Rogan from an old criminal court case involving two soldiers who survived a shipwreck and found themselves floating on a plank that would only support one of them. Is it murder to ensure the survival of some rather than the probable death of all? Readers who enjoy survival stories like Jamrach’s Menagerie or psychological dramas like Room will read this in one sitting.