Cardboard characters on a painted ocean
Charlotte Rogan's first novel revolves around the survivors of a shipwreckThe Lifeboat
By Charlotte Rogan
Published by Little Brown
Available at Amazon.com
Charlotte Rogan's first novel "The Lifeboat" should have been a stirring tale of survival at sea aboard a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic. Instead it is curiously flat, its characters bloodless and its plot maddeningly vague.
Two years after the sinking of the Titanic, just as World War I is getting underway, the passenger liner Empress Alexandria en route from London to New York suffers a mysterious explosion. Survivors are crammed into a few lifeboats. One is commanded by able seaman John Hardie. Of the 39 survivors aboard his 23-foot lifeboat, 19 will die over the next three weeks.
In the Prologue, one survivor, Grace Winter, is on trial for murder, along with two other women, Ursula Grant and Hannah West. "I was 22 years old," she writes. "I had been married for 10 weeks and a widow for over six."
At the urging of her lawyers, Grace Winter writes an account of her ordeal at sea. This has the advantage of producing some fine simple descriptive prose:
"We had been in the lifeboat for perhaps five hours when the sky turned a deep pink shading to blue, then purple, and the sun seemed to inflate as it dropped toward the darkening line of water to the west. In the distance we could see the black shapes of other lifeboats, bobbing the way we were bobbing, set down in that pink and black vastness with nothing to do but wait."
Beautiful Grace Winter is a charmer and a schemer. Her father, a New York businessman, was ruined by a partner and committed suicide, her mother went mad, her sister settled for job as a governess. But Grace set her sights on a young investment banker named Henry Winter and eloped with him to London. He may or may not have bribed John Hardie to allow her on the lifeboat.
The sea tale is strictly blinkered by her own narrow point of view. Thus there is no dramatic buildup to a storm at sea but only Grace’s practical perspective: on the drudgery of bailing: "I had been bailing and peering peevishly at the bottom of the boat for over an hour. I had seen a pool approximately one foot deep, greenish in color, but mostly clear and filled with wet leather shoes of various sorts. Now I realised my mistake. The water was bluish black and rolled past us like an unending herd of whales. The lifeboat alternately rose high on their board backs and slid down into the deep depressions between them."
The disadvantage of her narrative voice is that it is weak in developing the characters on board the lifeboat and vague about their motives. John Hardie takes charge from the beginning: manning the helm, refusing to take on drowning women and children, assigning seats for balance, establishing a bailing rotation, arranging a space for sleeping, and taking charge of rationing water and sea biscuits. The boat is woefully overloaded, the sea mere inches from the gunwale. When a storm comes up, Hardie draws lots among the men to lighten the boat. Two must go overboard.
Scheming against his authority are a forceful middle aged woman named Ursula Grant and her youthful protege Hannah West. Exactly why is unclear.
Meanwhile a host of improbabilities pile up. John Hardie kills two big fish with his knife. In the middle of the Atlantic, this is as improbable as stabbbing a moose atop Mount Everest. Then a flock of seabirds collapse dead around the lifeboat.
Hunger, thirst, exposure, exhaustion - Hannah is weak in describing specific physical suffering though she is quick in offering up religious conclusions: "I had always envisioned God as hovering somewhere above us, smiling or frowning depending on his mood and whether he was pleased with us or not, perhaps inhabiting the sun or blowing storms violently out of his cheeks to wake us up from our torpor and deter us from deceit.
Now, however, I knew he was in the sea, lurking there, rising up in those big waves
and splashing down random pieces of himself on our boat."
When the climatic confrontation explodes aboard the lifeboat, Grace is curiously impassive and then springs into fatal action though, again, offering no motive. She remains content with the existential lesson of the lifeboat, concluding: "I feel both lucky and unlucky about
it, suffused with a sort of happiness as it has opened up a whole new world to me,
one quite devoid of dependence on other people, devoid even of the fear of death
and belief in God."
This indifference extends to the reader. One closes the book devoid of any emotion.