Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Recommended Read - The Lifeboat

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Photo / Supplied

Right now, we're loving: The Lifeboat, a debut novel by American author Charlotte Rogan.

The premise, in 25 words or less: In 1914, 39 shipwreck survivors are cast adrift in a lifeboat that's overcrowded and threatening to sink. For any to live, some must die.

You'll love it if you like: The Life of Pi, Lord of the Flies and other stories in which extreme events test the normal boundaries of humanity and behaviour, the current Edwardian craze, or if you have a fascination with the Titanic or even the TV programme Survivor.

Author's credentials: A debut author at age 57, Charlotte Rogan has been biding her time. A Princeton University graduate, she worked mostly in architecture and engineering before becoming a stay-at-home mother in Dallas, Texas - looking after triplets, no less. Over several decades, she taught herself to write. The Lifeboat took her about 10 years to finish, and then sat in her bottom drawer until a chance encounter with a New York Times journalist led her to a literary agent, who was impressed.

The guts of the book: The protagonist of The Lifeboat is Grace Winter, a young woman who was separated from her doomed new husband when the grand ocean liner Empress Alexandra mysteriously exploded and sank in the middle of the Atlantic. As the book opens, Grace is about to stand trial with two other women for murdering a fellow survivor while they were stranded in the lifeboat. She begins to write a journal, in which she recounts the three weeks in which the survivors drifted.

Within a day or two of the sinking, hope of a quick rescue evaporates. As well as battling hunger, thirst and the elements, the 39 survivors begin to battle each other, as it becomes obvious the overloaded boat is sitting perilously low in the water and could sink at any moment. They realise the load must be lightened. Alliances are formed, leadership battles ensue and morality is tested, as each person faces a choice between sacrificing themselves for the good of the rest, or saving themselves at any cost.

Why you should read it: It's a page turner with depth. As a straight survivor story it's fascinating: who will live and who will die? As a courtroom drama it sucks you in with a riveting hook: how did Grace wind up on trial, and will she be convicted? But it also addresses deeper questions about morality. We like to think that catastrophe brings out the best in people. But, as Rogan demonstrates, it also brings out the worst. In this tale, the instinct to survive becomes tragically - even murderously - selfish. Heroism is noticeably absent in the small boat. When it does occur, sacrifice is suggestive of weakness - an inability to withstand peer pressure.

The most haunting illustration of this comes shortly after the ship's sinking, and sets the tone for the rest of the story. The survivors are rowing their lifeboat through the wreckage and encounter a young boy clinging to a plank beside his dead mother, screaming for help and holding his hands out to them. Grace recounts in her journal: "One of the men yelled, 'A little more this way and we can get the child!' But Hardie replied, 'Fine, and which one o' ye wants to trade places with 'im?'" The survivors fall silent and the child is left behind.

The buzz: The book has found almost universal approval from critics. Wolf Hall author and Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel called it a splendid book. "It rivets the reader's attention, and at the same time it seethes with layered ambiguity."

Trivia: The book was released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, because of the obvious similarities in subject matter.

Details: Published by Hachette, RRP $36.99. Read an extract here.

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