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Must-read: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel, The Lifeboat, is a complex tale of morality and survival. God may indeed help those who help themselves, but some of us are tempted to take more than our share. What would you do to stay alive on the open sea while waiting for rescue?

Grace Winter was 22 years old and had been married to her Henry less than four weeks when the Empress The LifeboatAlexandra sunk in the north Atlantic — the result of an explosion. Although two years after the Titanic, the ocean liner was not adequately prepared for disaster, and lifeboats were released either half full or overcapacity. It was in the latter situation that Grace found herself — and as she took a seat in Lifeboat 14, she tried to remember Henry’s face when he released her to the crewman who was also getting onboard.

The Lifeboat is told in retrospect, mostly through the journal in which Grace documents her memories of the days she spent drifting on the sea with an ever-dwindling number of shipmates. She has nothing else to do, now that she’s back on land and in prison, except to wait for her murder trial and remember and mull over the events before the rescue. As we read Grace’s account of the harrowing days and nights aboard the floundering craft, it’s as if we were members of the jury, evaluating the survivors’ behavior and wondering just how far we’d go to stay alive. Grace herself says numerous times that she believes God helps those who help themselves. But can you help yourself too much?

Charlotte Rogan’s haunting debut novel is surprisingly complex. What at first seems a straightforward reckoning of the fate of a micro-society constrained by the gunwales of a lifeboat, in fact, is an examination of morality and the will to stay alive. Does survival depend on selfishness or some innate physical and mental strength? Nothing is black and white in this tale. There are no clear heroes or villains. You’ll be thinking about the tangle of moral issues long after Grace’s trial has ended.

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