THIS novel, The Lifeboat, is not a book for those who
suffer from claustrophobia or agoraphobia. It starts with the
narrator, Grace Winter, on trial for her life, and is set almost
entirely in an overcrowded lifeboat adrift in the North
It concludes with a feverish court hearing that issues a verdict
on three accused women. This leaves big questions about guilt,
innocence, and judgement. Is society qualified to judge actions
performed in such extremis? Do the rules of morality hold
when some must die in order that others can live?
This is Charlotte Rogan's first novel, and is unusually assured
for a debut. The boat soon comes to feel like a world. It comes to
represent not only the hopes of those crammed on board, but also
all of Western society, on the edge of war in 1914, and, perhaps,
Rogan has said: "The earth is a lifeboat, after all." She
achieves all this without making these 40 people anything other
than true individuals, never ciphers. At times, the buoyancy of the
lifeboat feels so fragile that we hold the book a little tighter,
and sit a little stiller, in case any sudden moves should cause the
sea to wash in over the bow.
Rogan sets the book in a specific moment: in Edwardian society
after the Titanic has sunk, and before the full horror of
the First World War. It is a clever choice, because it means that
the reader already has clear images in his or her head of stringent
dress, the ethics of Empire, "Women and children first", and
Rogan herself writes: "I liked the fact that my poor characters
knew about the Titanic, and so believed that making it
into a lifeboat was the hard part, and that they would be rescued
in a few hours' time."
Much of the book focuses on what happens when that confidence
fades, when easy rescue does not come, and when each succeeding
dream of safety is stripped away. Rogan has a gift for setting tone
and mood - events that seem minor add a new sense of foreboding to
the wandering journey of Lifeboat 14. Everything has meaning. The
tension builds. Grace herself is a complex figure. As the narrator,
she is in a privileged position, and, at first, we take her to be
an honest storyteller. Over time, however, a space emerges between
what she describes and her motivation. There are troubling gaps -
for example, how did she get into the lifeboat?
There are other key characters in the book, all of them seen
through the eyes of Grace. John Hardie is the only crew member on
board the lifeboat. Gruff, isolated, and uncompromising, he is the
salvation and hope of the survivors in the first days, but then
begins to lose his lustre.
Mrs Grant is a watchful coalition-builder whose moral outrage at
Hardie's refusal to take a child on board while the ship is sinking
is the soil in which her opposition to him grows. Grace sees the
deacon in the boat as unimpressive, but his decision, when it
comes, speaks of courage and self-sacrifice more than weakness.
This is a tightly written book, focused on an overloaded boat in
the middle of a hostile ocean, in a massive universe. In that small
space, Rogan explores timeless battles between democracy and the
lonely pressure of leadership; between the audacity of hope and the
presence of fear; and between male and female. Always there is the
private question for each of us about how long our will to survive
would overcome the temptation to stop suffering, and to let go into
Whether Grace is a true heroine or a survivor who remakes
reality to suit her own ends is a fascinating question; but more
important is the enjoyment we find in this deceptively deep novel,
and our sense of relief that, at the end, we come into harbour, and
out of the swing of the sea.
As with every good thriller, we are glad to close the book and
reflect. We should be slow to judge, and quick to understand - and
quicker still to give thanks that it is Grace and the others who
have to face these choices and this adversity, and not us.
The Revd Richard Lamey is Rector of St Paul's, Wokingham,
with St Nicholas's, Embrook, and Woosehill Community Church, in
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan is published by Virago at
£7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.20 - Use code
CT343 ); 978-1-84408-754-9.
THE LIFEBOAT - SOME QUESTIONS
Charlotte Rogan calls the main
character "Grace", and her former love-rival "Felicity". Are their
On the 12th day in the boat, the
passengers eat a flock of dead birds which falls from the sky. Are
there any other biblical parallels in the book?
Is Hardie's first concern his
passengers, or himself?
Occasionally one of the passengers
cracks a joke. How important is humour to their
Would making contact with the
lifeboat that appears on the horizon have been an act of wisdom or
Both Hardie and Mrs Grant are strong
but flawed personalities. But who do you think is more
The men draw lots before a storm
hits. Should the lottery have included the women?
"If Mr Hardie was still godlike, he
had become god [sic] in his human form, and we all know what
happens to gods like that." Do we?
To what extent is the lifeboat a
metaphor for redemption?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 June, we will
print extra information about the next book. This is
Learning to Dream Again by Samuel
Wells. It is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (CT
Bookshop special offer £12.99); 978-1-84825-331-5.
What sort of insight does today's
Christian need in order to make headway in the bewildering
secular labyrinth of the modern world? Samuel Wells argues that a
specific kind of wisdom is required, one that is to be found rooted
in the second theological virtue, Christian hope.
A series of short chapters explores
new ways of thinking about loving, living, thinking, reading,
feeling, and dreaming. He seeks to tease out how Christians can
remain rooted in a fallen world, but with hearts and minds open to
God's transforming life.
Some of the chapters deal with the
implications of Christian ethics on divisive questions (such as
abortion and torture), and how such issues might also be dealt with
as pastoral challenges. Dr Wells teases out the wisdom found in
situations of humility, suffering, and what he describes as
The Revd Dr Samuel Wells is Vicar of
St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, and Visiting Professor of
Christian Ethics at the University of London. He was formerly Dean
of Chapel and Research Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke
Divinity School, North Carolina. Before going to the United States,
he spent 11 years working in inner-city areas of deprivation. He
has published extensively, including books on Anglicanism,
liturgy, and ethics.
Books for the next two
July: Paradise by
A. L. Kennedy
August: Grace and
Mary by Melvyn Bragg