by Charlotte Rogan
Newly-married Grace Winter was a passenger on board the steamship, The Empress Alexandra, when it sank and she found herself one of 39 others in a lifeboat adrift on the Atlantic. Grace is now in Boston on trial for murder. To get events straight in her own mind and to help her defence attorneys, she writes a journal of the weeks she spent aboard the lifeboat.
As well as being a page-turner, this novel is a subtle portrait of several complex characters, a fascinating study of endurance and an exploration of people’s behaviour under extreme stress. The underlying theme of the book, however, is gender politics. It is set in 1914 at the start of World War 1, and at a time when the suffrage movement had failed to achieve its objectives of votes for women. The power play that characterizes the action aboard the boat and the ensuing trial mirror the militancy of the suffragette movement and its reception at the time. Grace’s defence and the media coverage of the trial reveal attitudes which are still depressingly familiar today.
This novel will make a great bookgroup read. It cleverly raises interesting moral questions and when I came to the end I was desperate to discuss it.
THE LIFEBOAT has been short-listed for the 2012 Guardian First Book Award.
Published by Virago, 288pp. Hardback.