The Lifeboat

The Lifeboat

by Charlotte Rogan
The Lifeboat

The Lifeboat

by Charlotte Rogan


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The sinking of an ocean liner leaves a newly married woman battling for survival in this powerful debut novel.

Grace Winter, 22, is both a newlywed and a widow. She is also on trial for her life.

In the summer of 1914, the elegant ocean liner carrying her and her husband Henry across the Atlantic suffers a mysterious explosion. Setting aside his own safety, Henry secures Grace a place in a lifeboat, which the survivors quickly realize is over capacity. For any to live, some must die.

As the castaways battle the elements, and each other, Grace recollects the unorthodox way she and Henry met, and the new life of privilege she thought she'd found. Will she pay any price to keep it?

The Lifeboat is a page-turning novel of hard choices and survival, narrated by a woman as unforgettable and complex as the events she describes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316185912
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 01/08/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 278
Sales rank: 705,885
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Charlotte Rogan studied architecture at Princeton University and worked for a large construction firm before turning to fiction. She is the author of The Lifeboat, which was translated into twenty-six language and nominated for the Guardian First Book Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. After many years in Dallas and a year in Johannesburg, she now lives in Westport, Connecticut.

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.

What People are Saying About This

J. M. Coetzee

Charlotte Rogan uses a deceptively simply narrative of shipwreck and survival to explore our all-too-human capacity for self-deception.


A Conversation with Charlotte Rogan
This April marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Did the story of the Titanic inspire you to write the book?
The tragedy of the Titanic was that there were not enough lifeboats for everyone, but if you made it into a boat, you were rescued 4-6 hours later. The characters in The Lifeboat were not so lucky. While my essentially story takes up where the Titanic left off, the Titanic was not a major source of inspiration for me.
The thing that caused me to put pen to paper was finding my husband's old criminal law text on the top shelf in my library. I was particularly intrigued by two 19th century cases where shipwrecked sailors were put on trial after being rescued. I was fascinated by the idea that the law of society was being applied to people who found themselves in a situation where everyone could not escape with their lives. Is the only moral course of action for such people to quietly die?
The Titanic was a wonderful resource when it came to researching background details, including lifeboat sizes, launching mechanisms, communication capabilities, shipping routes, etc. But I protected myself from reading about the survivors. I was worried that their stories would contaminate my imagination as I created my own cast of characters.
The people in the lifeboat become concerned with issues of class and gender. Did you set out to write a book about class and gender issues?
I was a member of one of the first Princeton University classes to admit women, and it wasn't unusual for a professor to call on me to give "the women's point of view." I had gone mostly to girls' schools, and this was my first realization that opinions might be gender-based. So my educational experiences, and growing up during the sexual revolution, have given me a life-long interest in gender issues. Since I bring the person I am to my writing, that interest is bound to come out in my work.
As for the question about class, that feeds into my view that a lifeboat is an apt metaphor for many of the problems faced by humanity. The rules of any society invariably favor some people over others, and I have often wondered why people who are not advantaged by those rules nevertheless feel bound by them.
I think many writers sense they are following their story rather than creating it, and it is only in later drafts that intention really kicks in. When you put a diverse group of characters together in any situation, a kind of identity politics is bound to emerge. Once I saw a power struggle developing along gender and class lines, I worked to make it more dramatic and believable.
What would you do to save yourself?
In the past few weeks, readers and journalists have asked me what I would do if I were to find myself in Grace's shoes. Would I kill another person in order to save my own life? My first answer is that I would find it very hard to hurt someone who had not first hurt me. Then the person ups the ante by asking me what I would do if my children were in the lifeboat with me. The bottom line is that I don't know. The wonderful thing about fiction is that it allows us to enter a dilemma we will never face in life. It is also the perfect vehicle for asking philosophical questions, which are basically questions for which there are no answers. If I want answers, I read non-fiction. If I want to confront the edges of the known universe, fiction is my medium of choice.
At the end of the book, it isn't completely clear what Grace has or hasn't done. How did you decide what to reveal and what to leave ambiguous?
What to reveal and what to leave unresolved is a tricky call for a writer. You can frustrate a reader by leaving too much up in the air. But equally frustrating, at least for me as a reader, are books that spend the last chapters or pages tying up everything into a neat package. That approach can serve to undo all of the careful work of engaging the reader in the story that has gone before.
Personally, I am biased against stories that spend too much time in explanation or exposition. I like writers who throw their readers in mid-stream and trust that we can swim. An example of what I mean is Grace's physical appearance. Most readers will come away from the book thinking that she is beautiful, but I say almost nothing about her looks. They get this impression only from the effect Grace has on other people. That, to me, is one way of enlisting the reader's imagination in the creation of the characters.
Another way is by not judging my characters. Even I do not know everything about Grace, and I think that is what keeps me, as the writer, from passing judgment on her. This is what allows each reader to form his or her own interpretation, not only of Grace's actions, but of the book as a whole.
And bear in mind that this is a first person narrative. Since Grace doesn't know everything about what happened to the other characters, it is impossible for her to pass that information on to the reader. Furthermore, she is not completely reliable as a narrator—or completely self-aware—so having her suddenly reveal all at the end of the book would be breaking the conceit of the novel, which is claustrophobic not only because it is set within the confines of a lifeboat, but because it is set within the confines of Grace's mind.
Who have you discovered lately?
I have read a lot of wonderful books lately, but I am going to confine my answer to recent reads that made my "Life List," which also might be titled "Books That Knocked My Socks Off." Recent additions to the Life List include:
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton: Brilliant novel about performers and voyeurs; astonishing language and plot.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead: Literary zombie novel; superhuman powers of observation; no plot. [Whitehead's debut, The Intuitionist, was a Discover selection in 1999. -Ed.]
Remainder by Tom McCarthy: A great example of a book that creates a bizarre universe and trusts the reader not to need hand-holding.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce: Gorgeous at the sentence level, but also has the reader cheering the characters on from the sidelines.
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond: Riveting explanation of the unequal rates of social development on the various continents.

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