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Th’ambitious ocean swell

02 May 2014

Richard Lamey on The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

In deep: the novelist Charlotte Rogan

In deep: the novelist Charlotte Rogan

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 Atlantic.

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, humanity itself.

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 impending cataclysm.

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 sleep.

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 Berkshire.

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.


Charlotte Rogan calls the main character "Grace", and her former love-rival "Felicity". Are their names fitting? 

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 survival? 

Would making contact with the lifeboat that appears on the horizon have been an act of wisdom or folly? 

Both Hardie and Mrs Grant are strong but flawed personalities. But who do you think is more Christ-like? 

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.

About the book

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 "ef­­fer­­ve­­­scent joy". 

About the author

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 months:

July: Paradise by A. L. Kennedy

August: Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg

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