Monday, November 4, 2013

It was not the sea that was cruel, but the people

The Lifeboat intrigued. I had a hold on it almost as soon as I'd heard about it (but it took me a year to get around to it!): Ocean liner passengers stranded in a lifeboat for weeks, small universe ("locked room"), life and death. Charlotte Rogan's first novel fit right onto my historical fiction reading list, plus I needed a seven-hour book for a car journey.

Grace Winter is an ambitious young woman, journeying back to America on the Empress Alexandra with her new husband in August 1914. After some years of poverty and uncertainty following the death of her father, her future looks bright, if she can win over her formidable mother-in-law. After five days at sea, though, disaster strikes and Grace finds herself in Lifeboat #14, overloaded with 39 men and women (and one child). The circumstances under which Grace got into the lifeboat are murky -- Grace herself doesn't quite remember -- and the events that occurred during three weeks at sea are also somewhat obscured.

It's important that Grace blow away some of the fog, however, as she finds herself fighting for her life -- along with two other women, Ursula Grant and Hannah West -- for the murder of another passenger and Empress Alexandra crewman, John Hardie. Her lawyers suggest that she write about her ordeal, and The Lifeboat is Grace's highly suspect account. These same lawyers are ready to consider an insanity defense depending on what she produces.

Some on the boat claim they saw Grace's husband slip a package to John Hardie who then recalled Lifeboat #14 on its way down the side of the ship in order for him and Grace to step on. But Hardie's story (and whatever was in his pocket) went over the side when Ursula and Hannah (and Grace?) wrestled him overboard after two weeks at sea. Grace claims ignorance of her husband's actions.

Don't read this for a tidy conclusion (you may have, as Grace's psychologist does [according to Grace] "a childish desire to know"), read it as a survival story of unbearable suspense and mystery with the ultimate in unreliable, unsympathetic narrators -- a woman who may not want/be able to tell the truth or whose truth is only one version of what happened.  I liked it a lot, but Rogan asks a great deal of the reader -- ultimately you have to decide what happened based on what you learn about Grace's character ... which, of course, you only have her word on what that character is. Delicious!

And while I really like the cover of the book (Rogan credits Emma Graves in her acknowledgements) -- that small boat in that large sea with that lowering sky -- there simply aren't enough people in that 23-foot-long boat! (You can see a more close-up version of the cover at Rogan's website.)

A new-to-me narrator, Rebecca Gibel (pro- nounced like giggle, only with b's), reads the novel.  She portrays Grace with an intelligence and craftiness that constantly caused this listener to remind herself that the narrative she provides is only what she wants me to hear. I kept my ears peeled for the tiniest clues. Gibel's reading is fairly straightforward and unemotional, with dramatic dialogue for variety. These conversations had significant impact -- the clues are in there, aren't they? -- as they are so different from Gibel's narration.

The audiobook opens and closes with some evocative dirge-like music, sounding very much like what might be played at a burial-at-sea.  I heard something else I've never heard on an audiobook before:  During a lengthy reading of the credits at the conclusion that included a brief warning against theft and piracy, the speaker says "Thank you for your support of the author's rights."

I'm very fond of an unreliable narrator, but this is the kind of book where reading it as a group would be helpful.  Others' opinions of what really happened can help a reader figure out why she's made her particular decisions. I won't divulge what my conclusion is, but I might if someone shares theirs in the comments.

[The map of the Empress Alexandra's voyage comes from the author's website.]

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
Narrated by Rebecca Gibel
Hachette Audio, 2012.  7:47

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