CHARLOTTE Rogan has taken a chance with her debut novel. With the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic having just come and gone, readers may not be too inclined to read a fictionalized account about the sinking of another cruise liner and the fate of its passengers.
Mind you, those who do pick up the American author's book will be nicely rewarded.
The Lifeboat's main focus is Grace Winter, a newly married 22-year-old unabashed social climber. As the First World War is about to erupt, Grace and her husband, Henry, are hurriedly returning from their honeymoon in Europe to their home in New York aboard the Empress Alexandra.
When a mysterious explosion cripples the ship, Grace is rushed onto a lifeboat with 38 others and spends the next three weeks adrift at sea.
Those three weeks, described in terrifying detail in the journal that Grace later writes, comprise the bulk and the best parts of this gripping novel. The other sections of the book, set in a courtroom where Grace is on trial for the murder of one of the castaways, are somewhat less compelling, but do not detract from the power of the novel as a whole.
In the scenes both at sea and ashore, Rogan capably captures the social mores and status of the times, clearly illustrating her knack for prose and keen knowledge of the ocean's give and take.
The fear, hunger, thirst, overcrowding and anguish are palpable as the men and women in the lifeboat cling desperately to the hope that they will be saved.
In the course of depicting this terror, Rogan also poses important philosophical and ethical questions.
As days and nights blur and the conditions within the lifeboat worsen, its occupants are forced to make difficult moral decisions. Innuendo, gossip and paranoia take their toll, and the castaways begin to form alliances.
Grace, generally level-headed and gracious, is forced to choose sides. At first she chooses John Hardie, one of the ocean liner's hardboiled crew.
"Mr. Hardie had a rough seaman's voice," Grace writes in her journal. "I could not always understand the things he said, but this served only to increase my faith in him. He knew about this world of water, he spokes its language, and the less I understood him, the greater the possibility that he was understood by the sea."
By its very nature, this novel begs comparison with Yann Martel's Life of Pi. At the same time, the way in which it examines how people adjust, connive, take control, lose control, invent new realities, turn malevolent and cling to life owes much to William Golding's classic Lord of the Flies.
This comparison aside, there are one or two minor lapses with the narrative. The turning point in the boat, when the murder is determined, happens too abruptly, almost without proper preamble. And the rescue too is rushed and anticlimactic.
In spite of these irritations, The Lifeboat remains riveting, thought-provoking and difficult to put down.
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.