Titanic Aspirations

My review of Charlotte Rogan from last weekend’s Irish Examiner

The Lifeboat

Charlotte Rogan
Virago; £12.99 
Review: Val Nolan 

A sunken liner on the eve of the First World War; an overcrowded, under-supplied evacuation craft; a disparate group where everyone is hiding something… The Lifeboat may be Charlotte Rogan’s debut offering but there is little doubt the author has constructed an effective historical fiction. Marshalling a subject of contemporary interest into something just different enough from the recent Titanic commemorations, Rogan’s Lifeboat succeeds as an engaging, polished study of how quickly people turn on each other when the going gets tough.

The novel is narrated by the 22-year-old Grace Winter, a social climber married for 10 weeks and widowed for six. Rogan makes the decision to begin at the end, with her protagonist accused of murder. However, knowing that Grace survives the 21 days of her ordeal never undermines the narrative. No, the real tension of The Lifeboat derives from Grace’s possibly dubious account of the events at sea, a document her lawyers have encouraged her to produce.

This straightforward, first-person recollection is an ideal fit for the hardships of empty stomachs and wet feet, with the boat’s quickly dwindling supplies all the more alarming for the matter-of-factness by which they are presented. That said, the real drama here is psychological in nature. Lost on the featureless ocean, Grace’s only landmarks are the competing personalities of those around her: “Despite our common purpose,” she says, “petty jealousies arose.” It is something of an understatement.

Indeed, one of the first things to be lost overboard is the better nature of the survivors, among them a deacon, a colonel, a clerk, and a casually brutal seaman who finds himself in nominal command of the leaky vessel. Despite the 31 women present, it is only the opinions of the male characters which matter. While they bicker, the women tell stories of their time aboard the ship and attempt to piece together the liner’s last moments.

The multiple timeframes allow Rogan to effectively underline how Grace, just like those around her, is concealing things. Her story is peppered with convenient omissions about her time in the lifeboat and deliberate obfuscations about her standing before that. Such calculated lapses contribute a satisfying wrinkle to an otherwise straightforward central character. After all, if the novel’s heroine intentionally lured her rich new husband away from his fiancée, might she not also be capable of the far worse crimes she stands accused of?

It’s a leap, but then The Lifeboat is all about assumptions. With an interest in class and gender closer to the Titanic of Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes than of Hollywood’s James Cameron, Rogan’s titular setting serves as an obvious microcosm of wider society at the time.  In it, the “influence and deceit” which binds the survivors together proves all too malleable. The violence and distress Rogan subsequently visits on her characters derives not from desperation but from distrust, a realistic touch which ensures that The Lifeboat stays afloat throughout.

This article originally published in the Irish Examiner, 12 May 2012, p.16.

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