Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Virago (3 Jan 2013)
I was to stand trial for my life. I was twenty-two years old. I had been married for ten weeks and a widow for six.
It is 1914 and Europe is on the brink of war. When a magnificent ocean liner suffers a mysterious explosion en route to New York City, Henry Winter manages to secure a place in a lifeboat for his new wife Grace. But the survivors quickly realize the boat is over capacity and could sink at any moment. For any to live, some must die.
Over the course of three perilous weeks, the passengers on the lifeboat plot, scheme, gossip and console one another while sitting inches apart. Their deepest beliefs are tested to the limit as they begin to discover what they will do in order to survive.
The Lifeboat begins with a prologue. Grace is on trial and when she leaves the courthouse at lunch with the lawyers, it is raining. The reader is introduced to a flashback of Day 10 in the lifeboat when it rained and this is our first intimation of the trauma endured by herself and fellow lifeboat passengers. Her actions in the rain lead the lawyers to conclude that Grace may be able to please insanity. They ask her to write an account of her time in the lifeboat.
Grace is our narrator during the days (and nights) and the aftermath that occurs after rescue. As the days progress, we not only spend time alongside Grace but we also find out more about her backstory and how she came to be on the Empress Alexandra.
Straight away the passengers form themselves into roles – roles we would expect in a team situation that depends on skills and knowledge for survival. Those of a like mind collaborate and the women (remembering the time period the story is set in) are either weak or strong. There are two warring leaders, which adds conflict to the already tense situation. On the first day, in amongst the wreckage, heartbreaking decisions are made by the leader that not all passengers agree with. There are several poignant moments as the days progress.
The isolation amplifies everything with Grace reading the timbre and conviction in voices to make judgements. Everyday things are given meaning out of proportion to reality. Introspection leads Grace to consider things about herself and to question the natural world and religion. The fear and then euphoria of survival is replaced by hope of rescue and then as they grow weaker, Grace accepts that the lifeboat IS her life.
All the way through we know Grace is on trial for something but it is not until Day 14 that we find out the tragedy that led to this conviction. This intrigue makes you want to turn the pages to find out what could possibly have been worse than the privations all the passengers endured.
Grace’s account of being in prison, time spent with the psychiatrist and where her life may lead afterwards gives the final structure to the story.
The writing style and rhythm suits the story perfectly. There is more intrigue with how Grace managed to be on this lifeboat and questions about the gold on board the Empress Alexandra. I’m still trying to work out my own theories!
The Lifeboat fascinated me as I love to look below the surface. Grace is such a resilient character, with hidden resources and depths. We know she has manipulated events in her past, which made me wonder just how honest she was being in her recounting of the tragedy. It’s our experiences in life that colour our perceptions of the world and for Grace, having had a secure childhood, then family disaster and now the shipwreck, we watch as she once again modifies her beliefs in the epilogue.
The Lifeboat is a testament to the complexities of human nature and existence in all its layers. It lays bare just how far we are prepared to go to secure our own survival, the truths we think we know and those we are willing to accept.
I have no hesitation in recommending this debut novel for your reading list.
I would like to thank the publishers for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.
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