Set at the beginning of WWI, Rogan’s debut follows 22-year-old Grace Winter, a newlywed, newly minted heiress who survives a harrowing three weeks at sea following the sinking of her ocean liner and the disappearance of her husband, Henry. Safe at home in the U.S., Grace and two other survivors are put on trial for their actions aboard the under-built, overloaded lifeboat. At sea, as food and water ran out, and passengers realized that some among them would die, questions of sacrifice and duty arose. Rogan interweaves the trial with a harrowing day-by-day story of Grace’s time aboard the lifeboat, and circles around society’s ideas about what it means to be human, what responsibilities we have to each other, and whether we can be blamed for choices made in order to survive. Grace is a complex and calculating heroine, a middle-class girl who won her wealthy husband through smalltime subterfuge. Her actions on the boat are far from faultless, and her memory of them spotty. By refusing to judge her, Rogan leaves room for readers to decide for themselves. A complex and engrossing psychological drama. Agent: David McCormick, McCormick & Williams. (Apr. 10)
"The Lifeboat traps the reader in a story that is exciting at the literal level and brutally moving at the existential: I read it in one go."
"The Lifeboat is a richly rewarding novel, psychologically acute and morally complex. It can and should be read on many levels, but it is first and foremost a harrowing tale of survival. And what an irresistible tale it is; terrifying, intense, and, like the ocean in which the shipwrecked characters are cast adrift, profound."
"What a splendid book. . . . I can't imagine any reader who looks at the opening pages wanting to put the book down. . . . It's so refreshing to read a book that is ambitious and yet not tricksy, where the author seems to be in command of her material and really on top of her game. It's beautifully controlled and totally believable."
J. M. Coetzee
"Charlotte Rogan uses a deceptively simply narrative of shipwreck and survival to explore our all-too-human capacity for self-deception."
"The Lifeboat is a spellbinding and beautifully written novel, one that will keep readers turning pages late into the night. This is storytelling at its best, and I was completely absorbed from beginning to end."
From the Publisher
"Charlotte Rogan uses a deceptively simply narrative of shipwreck and survival to explore our all-too-human capacity for self-deception."J. M. Coetzee"
The Lifeboat traps the reader in a story that is exciting at the literal level and brutally moving at the existential: I read it in one go."Emma Donoghue, author of Room"
What a splendid book. . . . I can't imagine any reader who looks at the opening pages wanting to put the book down. . . . It's so refreshing to read a book that is ambitious and yet not tricksy, where the author seems to be in command of her material and really on top of her game. It's beautifully controlled and totally believable."Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall"
The Lifeboat is a spellbinding and beautifully written novel, one that will keep readers turning pages late into the night. This is storytelling at its best, and I was completely absorbed from beginning to end."Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried, In the Lake of the Woods, July, July"
The Lifeboat is a richly rewarding novel, psychologically acute and morally complex. It can and should be read on many levels, but it is first and foremost a harrowing tale of survival. And what an irresistible tale it is; terrifying, intense, and, like the ocean in which the shipwrecked characters are cast adrift, profound."Valerie Martin, author of Property and The Confessions of Edward Day
An explosion on an ocean liner gliding across the Atlantic has dire consequences for 22-year-old newlywed Grace Winter. Suddenly, she's a widow, and because the lifeboats had been filled to overflowing, with people fighting (sometimes unsuccessfully) to climb aboard and stay there, she's also on trial for murder. A great book-club pick—and just in time for the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic.
First-time novelist Rogan's architectural background shows in the precision with which she structures the edifice of moral ambiguity surrounding a young woman's survival during three weeks in a crowded lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic in 1914. The novel begins with Grace back on American soil, on trial for her actions on the boat. Two other female survivors who are also charged, Hannah and Mrs. Grant, plead self-defense. Grace, guided by her lawyer Mr. Reichmann, who has had her write down her day-by-day account of events, pleads not guilty. Rogan leaves it up to the reader to decide how reliable a narrator Grace may be. Newly impoverished after her father's financial ruin and subsequent suicide, New Yorker Grace set her sites on the wealthy young financier Henry Winter and soon won him, never mind that he was already engaged. They sailed together, pretending to be married, to London, where he had business and they legally wed before boarding Empress Alexandra (named for the soon-to-be-assassinated Tsarina) to return home. When an unexplained explosion rocks the ship, Henry gallantly places her, perhaps with a bribe, into a lifeboat already packed to over-capacity. She never sees him again. An Empress crewmember, Mr. Hardie, quickly takes charge of the passengers, distributing the limited rations and organizing work assignments with godlike authority. As hope for quick salvation dims, passengers fall into numb lethargy. Some go mad. There are natural deaths and (reluctantly) voluntary sacrificial drownings. Dissention grows. Mr. Hardie's nemesis is the sternly maternal Mrs. Grant and feminist Hannah, who plant suspicions about his motives and competence. Grace avoids taking sides but eventually helps the other women literally overthrow him into the sea. Is she acting out of frail weakness, numbed by her ordeal, or are her survival instincts more coldblooded? Even she may not be sure; much of her conversation circles morality and religion. The lifeboat becomes a compelling, if almost overly crafted, microcosm of a dangerous larger world in which only the strong survive.
Read an Excerpt
Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them. A thunderstorm arose as we were leaving the court for lunch. They dashed for cover under the awning of a nearby shop to save their suits from getting wet while I stood in the street and opened my mouth to it, transported momentarily back and seeing again that other rain as it came at us in gray sheets. I had lived through that downpour, but the moment in the street was my first notion that I could live it again, that I could be immersed in it, that it could again be the tenth day in the lifeboat, when it began to rain.
The rain had been cold, but we welcomed it. At first it had been no more than a teasing mist, but as the day progressed, it began to come down in earnest. We held our faces up to it, mouths open, drenching our swollen tongues. Mary Ann either could not or would not part her lips, either to drink or to speak. She was a woman of my age. Hannah, who was only a little older, slapped her hard and said, "Open your mouth, or I'll open it for you!" Then she sat with Mary Ann and pinched her nostrils until she was forced to gasp for air. The two of them sat for a long time in a sort of violent embrace while Hannah held Mary Ann's jaws open, allowing the gray and saving rain to enter her, drop by drop.
"Come, come!" said Mr. Reichmann, who was the head of the little band of lawyers hired by my mother-in-law, not because she cares one jot about what happens to me, but because she thinks it will reflect badly on the family if I am convicted. Mr. Reichmann and his associates were calling to me from the sidewalk, but I pretended not to hear them. It made them very angry not to be heard or, rather, not to be heeded, which is a different and far more insulting thing, I imagine, to those used to speaking from podiums, to those who regularly have the attention of judges and juries and people sworn to truth or silence and whose freedom hangs on the particular truths they choose to tell. When I finally wrenched myself away and joined them, shivering and drenched to the bone but smiling to myself, glad to have rediscovered the small freedom of my imagination, they asked, "What kind of trick was that? Whatever were you doing, Grace? Have you gone mad?"
Mr. Glover, who is the nicest of the three, put his coat around my dripping shoulders, but soon the fine silk lining was soaked through and probably ruined, and while I was glad it had been Mr. Glover who had offered his coat, I would much rather it had been the coat of the head lawyer, a handsome, heavy-set man named William Reichmann, that had been ruined in the rain.
"I was thirsty," I said, and I was thirsty still.
"But the restaurant is just there. It's less than a block away. You can have any sort of drink you like in a moment or two," said Mr. Glover while the others pointed and made encouraging noises. But I was thirsty for rain and salt water, for the whole boundless ocean of it.
"That's very funny," I said, laughing to think that I was free to choose my drink, when a drink of any sort wasn't something I wanted. I had spent the previous two weeks in prison, and I was only free pending the outcome of a proceeding that was now in progress. Unable to restrain my laughter, which kept lapping at my insides and bursting out of me like gigantic waves, I was not allowed to accompany the lawyers into the dining room, but had to have my meal brought to me in the cloakroom, where a wary clerk perched vigilantly on a stool in the corner as I pecked at my sandwich. We sat there like two birds, and I giggled to myself until my sides ached and I thought I might be sick.
"Well," said Mr. Reichmann when the lawyers rejoined me after the meal, "we've been discussing this thing, and an insanity defense doesn't seem so far-fetched after all." The idea that I had a mental disorder filled them with happy optimism. Where before lunch they had been nervous and pessimistic, now they lit cigarettes and congratulated each other on cases I knew nothing about. They had apparently put their heads together, considered my mental state and found it lacking on some score, and, now that the initial shock of my behavior had worn off and they had discovered that it could possibly be explained scientifically and might even be exploited in the conduct of our case, they took turns patting me on the arm and saying, "Don't you worry, my dear girl. After all, you've been through quite enough. Leave it to us, we've done this sort of thing a thousand times before." They talked about a Doctor Cole and said, "I'm sure you will find him very sympathetic," but they didn't tell me who he was or what a doctor might have to do with my defense.
I don't know who had the idea, whether it was Glover or Reichmann or even that mousy Ligget, that I should try to recreate the events of those twenty-one days and that the resulting "diary" might be entered as some kind of exonerating exhibit.
"In that case, we'd better present her as sane, or the whole thing will be discounted," said Mr. Ligget tentatively, as if he were speaking out of turn.
"I suppose you're right," agreed Mr. Reichmann, stroking his long chin. "Let's see what she comes up with before we decide." They laughed and poked the air with their cigarettes and talked about me as if I wasn't there as we walked back to the courthouse where, along with two other women named Hannah West and Ursula Grant, 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 over six.