How far would you go to save your own life? That’s the implied question at the heart of this thrilling and provocative novel, which begins with three women facing trial for murder. The story of how they got there and whether the charge is justified unfolds over the course of the book, which takes the form of a journal written by one of the women, Grace Winter, as she prepares for her day in court. She is one of the passengers on a transatlantic liner, the Empress Alexandra, when it sinks in mid-Atlantic en route to New York in 1914. Grace, a newlywed, is separated from her husband as he secures her a place in one of the lifeboats, which embarks on a gruelling 21-day journey for survival. As food and water run low, and terrifying seas swamp the dangerously overcrowded boat, the passengers face an appalling dilemma: if any are to live, some must die. But who should be sacrificed and how should they be chosen?
Charlotte Rogan was born in 1953 to a family of avid sailors and naturalists. After studying architecture and engineering at Princeton University, she took a job with a large construction firm. Women on building sites were rare and regularly harassed, but she loved getting an inside view into how the pieces of buildings were put together. She says still loves the smell of blueprints and concrete.
Charlotte did not start writing until her mid-thirties, and soon after that she and her husband became the parents of triplets, which meant that free time was precious! When she hired a babysitter, she would drive out of the driveway past her cheerfully waving children, circle the block, and park in an alley behind the house. Then she would sneak through a back gate and into a room off the garage where her computer was kept, and there she would work until the sitter’s allotted time was up.
After 25 years of writing mostly in secret, a chance encounter led to a literary agent who agreed to represent her. The Lifeboat, her first published novel, is currently being translated into 25 languages. After many years in Dallas and a brief stint in Johannesburg, Charlotte and her husband now live in Westport, Connecticut.
1. The story is told entirely through Grace’s eyes. How far can we trust her?
2. How does your view of Grace change during the course of the novel?
3. Do you agree with the charges brought against the women? Do you agree with the verdicts?
4. There are obvious similarities to the sinking of the Titanic. How does the author make her story different?
5. Many survivors of the Titanic were vilified. What does the future hold for Grace?
6. Which characters emerge with honour?
7. What do you think of John Hardie? Does he deserve what happens to him?
8. In a shipwreck today, should it still be ‘women and children first’? Would the concept of sexual equality be irrelevant?
9. What does the book tell us about human nature under pressure?
10. How do you think you would you react in similar circumstances?
My characters often appear to me as voices in my head, and if the voice is compelling enough, I start to write the story down. I must be somewhat paranoid, because often the owners of the voices are defending themselves, often the cards are stacked against them, often they are unfairly accused or have done things that can be seen as horrible when viewed from one point of view and perfectly reasonable from another. Sometimes their words beget voices in response, but other times the words pile up or spin out into the void - no one hears, no one cares. No wonder I love Kafka novels and Hunger by Knut Hamsun and Despair by Vladimir Nabokov and anything by J.M. Coetzee and Cormac McCarthy.
When the voice of Grace Winter first came to me, she was defending herself for something she had done in a lifeboat. I remember when I first realized she was not necessarily telling the truth. It was an exciting writing moment, for it opened up huge possibilities in terms of what the novel could be. Grace wasn’t an out-an-out liar, but she wasn’t always honest - well, who is? She didn’t always know the truth - who does? Certainly, she didn’t want to go to jail. As Grace came to life on the page, I would sometimes catch her in a lie, but just as often she would let slip a telling truth.
I love exploring the psychic layer that lies just beneath the layer of polish and sanity we humans show to the world when things are going our way. We all have cut someone off in traffic and experienced first hand how thin that layer of civility really is. What if we didn’t have the armour of our cars to protect us? What if the local supermarket started running out of food? Perhaps, I thought, the happy idea that with hard work and a little luck and good behaviour everyone can be a winner is pure fantasy, a lovely myth designed to keep life’s losers in their place.
I do not consider The Lifeboat a historical novel, but it helped my story to set it 100 years ago, at the very start of the First World War. For one thing, those pesky global positioning systems would have interfered with a plot that depended on being lost at sea. For another, gender issues were starker then, and gender issues interest me. I also liked the fact that my poor characters knew about the Titanic and so believed that making it into a lifeboat was the hard part and that they would be rescued in a few hours’ time. And the looming war allowed my lifeboat to take on a bigger meaning: the old order was ending, women were fighting for the right to vote, the earth is a lifeboat after all.
Since publication of the novel, I have had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about the character of Grace. Opinions are shockingly, wonderfully divergent. She is admired and reviled, variously called a scheming manipulator and a fragile victim of bad luck. Reader reactions got me thinking about anti-heroes, defined as characters who fail the hero test by succumbing to circumstance or by possessing a mix of traits that don’t convincingly tip the scales toward good. I wrote Grace from the inside, but when I look at her from the outside, I can see why she inspires such a wide array of views. One of the things I love about fiction is how the reader completes the story by imagining and assessing and filling in the blanks. Reading is a thoroughly creative act.
So read and enjoy. The author doesn’t know everything about his or her characters - much of the final reckoning is up to you. I hope The Lifeboat inspires a heated discussion in your book group or with your friends. I hope it causes you to think. If so, I will consider the novel a success.