The Lifeboat is a work of historical fiction set in 1914, two years after the sinking of The Titanic. The Empress Alexandra, a luxury liner en route from England to the US, has sunk at sea for reasons unknown. After several weeks in a lifeboat, a few survivors are found, and after being saved, some are put on trial for murder.
Told from point of view of newlywed Grace Winter, whose banker husband has perished, the story recounts Grace’s troubled family history, the unusual circumstances of her courtship and marriage, and a mystery surrounding her presence in the lifeboat. Grace is one of the people on trial.
Is our narrator reliable? I always enjoy a story where I’m not sure. It keeps me on edge and makes me read closely. The pretense for the story is that Grace’s lawyer asks her to write a diary of her time at sea so that he can help defend her, perhaps present an insanity plea. Each chapter covers a day on the lifeboat, interspersed with Grace’s trial preparation. It’s easy to feel sympathy for Grace. Her father’s suicide and her mother’s rapid mental deterioration afterward led Grace and her sister to make quick important decisions about their own futures. But does Grace make an admirable decision? Given that it’s 1914 and women’s opportunities are limited, are we right to judge her? Grace seems to have gaps in her memories about the weeks on the lifeboat. It was a harrowing experience following a tragedy, and the survivors make difficult decisions to ensure their survival. Would we make the same? Is it fair to judge them? And again, is Grace telling the truth? She comes across to some as fragile and needing protection, but it requires great strength to survive, and Grace has demonstrated her own strong survival instincts prior to embarking on The Empress Alexandra. Is forgetting what is too difficult to process a sign of that survivor’s strength? Or is Grace dissembling?
Three pivotal characters who help drive the drama are Mr. Hardie, the only seaman in the lifeboat and a man who takes charge but seems to be hiding things from his fellow survivors; Mrs. Grant, a woman who emanates understanding and compassion as well as leadership, but also then becomes a rival to Mr. Hardie; and Hannah, Mrs. Grant’s right hand woman. Some of the decisions made in the lifeboat involve distribution of food and water and whether to link up with other lifeboats or assist those in the water. Ultimately, the passengers are forced to decide who should lead with deadly consequences for the loser.
The Lifeboat, in addition to being a riveting story, provides commentary on the lot of women in 1914. Viewed as the weaker sex and in need of male guidance, they must obey laws made by men and are judged by juries of men. Does the system work to Grace’s advantage because she can present an image of a traditional woman who needs protection and was easily led by stronger personalities? Did the system lead to justice in the end?
To the author’s credit, at the end of the story, readers might draw very different conclusions about the actions of the people in the lifeboat and of Grace in particular. The author doesn’t leave the reader with a strong feeling of one character’s guilt or another’s innocence. Instead, we are left with an unsettling feeling about what we might have done in similar circumstances. A good book.