If you read this book, remember to breathe. Several times my eye zipped all the way down to the end of a chapter, or jumped back over several details in the previous paragraph, before I took in oxygen again. Book Apnoea, I’ve decided to call it.
The premise is simple: 39 people are in a lifeboat. That’s practically everything you need to know, except even the most casual reviewer should supply a bit more. It’s set in the year 1914 somewhere in the Atlantic. It’s told retrospectively from the point of view of Grace, who survives the ordeal and is now standing trial for a terrible crime. And from the start fatalities are not possible, but inevitable.
The genius of this novel is the way it turns the lifeboat into a community, a gossipy parish complete with factions and paranoia. Morality and pragmatism rub up against each other creating friction at first, then overlapping, then merging.
Comparisons jump out at you. It’s like ‘Lord of the Flies’ with Edwardian ladies. It’s like ‘Touching the Void’ – like ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ – like ‘127 Hours’ and it’s true ‘The Lifeboat’ occupies a genre space with these other works, real and imagined. It also reminded me of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ which I read at the age of 13, and which has given me the creeps ever since.
But Charlotte Rogan has something else to offer too, the rare gift of articulate literary prose combined with thumping-good storytelling. After I finished this novel, I felt like standing up and applauding. More, Charlotte! More!
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
Published in the UK by Virago, March 2012
@charlotte_rogan on Twitter