In 1914, two years after the titanic was lost and in the early days of the Great War, the liner ‘Empress Alexandra’ set sail from Liverpool to New York.
In the middle of the Atlantic there was an explosion, causing fires to break out, and irreparable damage. In the ensuing chaos just half of the lifeboats were launched.
Grace Winter had been a young bride, on her way to meet her new husband’s family for the first time. But she found herself on Lifeboat 14, without her husband, but one of the lucky ones who got away.
But getting away, getting the lifeboat clear of the wreckage, was only the beginning. The thirty-one women, six men and one child on Lifeboat 14 needed a ship to come to their rescue. But nothing came.
I knew that there would be a rescue: the opening chapter had told me that Grace, and two other women, were on trial for their lives as a consequence of events on the lifeboat. And yet the story of what happened was utterly, utterly compelling.
“I had been allowed to believe in man’s innate goodness for the twenty-two years of my life, and I had hoped to carry the belief with me to my grave. I wanted to think that all people could have what they wanted, that there was no inherent conflict between competing interests, and that, if tragedies had to happen, they were not something mere human beings could control.”
One ship’s officer, Mr. Hardie, was assigned to the lifeboat, and he takes command. At first his knowledge and his skills are respected, but as days pass, as food and water supplies diminish, he becomes more authoritarian. Difficult decisions have to be made. And Mr Hardie’s authority is challenged, by Ursula Grant and Hannah West, two strong and capable women. Relationships begin to break down, and conditions become more and more difficult …
As a psychological novel The Lifeboat is a tour de force, showing how some will crumble but others will survive when faced with such a terrible situation, showing how easily perceptions are altered as rumours and gossip spread like wildfire through the boat, showing how communities and relationships can crack under pressure.
The evocation of life on Lifeboat 14 really is extraordinary, and the proximity, the vastness, the power of the ocean is tangible.
And Grace’s narration was a masterstroke. She was clearly an unreliable narrators, missing many significant points, changing her interpretation of events, changing her loyalties. She lacked empathy with others and so I found it difficult to care about her, but she was intriguing nonetheless.
One thing was certain: Grace was a survivor.
There was so much to think about. Some very big questions, about life and humanity, and some smaller, more specific questions.
How did Grace’s husband get her onto the boat? What was in the box that Mr Hardie guarded so closely? What happened in the radio room of the Empress Alexandra? Why is Mr Hardie so determined to avoid the only other lifeboat ever sighted, and Mr Blake, the ship’s officer responsible for it?
Inevitably, but still disappointingly, there would be no answers.
And the ending was not quite as strong as what had come before. It spoke of the role and position of women in society, of what actions might or might not be justified in such extreme circumstances very clearly, picking up on ideas planted earlier in the story. But it felt just a little bit rushed, just a little bit contrived.
But that was the only time the story lost its grip. The only time I was a little less than completely captivated by this intelligent, compelling and beautifully written debut novel.
I suspect that the story of Lifeboat 14 will stay with me for a long, long time.