Few stories are more fascinating than those written through the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator. This is one of the reasons why the book Atonement proved to be so good–that, and the setting. The Lifeboat by first time author Charlotte Rogan has both elements, as well, the setting being the initial draw for those who like a good sea yarn and are interested in the ocean liner era in which the Titanic sank. It is also a book that will keep you up all night.
First things first: The cover art is amazing, showing a lone, half-full lifeboat as a bright spot in the midst of a gloomy blue sea and sky. The picture is at once beautiful and haunting, immediately capturing the tale in the mind of the reader as one that will be highly affecting, both mentally and emotionally.
That the main character and narrator of the story, Grace Winter, is unreliable, becomes evident from the first page of the prologue in which Grace, out to lunch with her lawyers, shocks them by standing in a downpour. She states that they must think her crazy and from how she puts things, Grace herself seems to share their opinion.
Her tale begins similarly to that of the movie Titanic. Grace is a young, formerly penniless woman who has won the heart of a rich man and they are sailing on the Empress Alexander to New York, where the two are to announce their marriage to his friends and family. The difference in this story is that Grace loves the rich young man. The ocean liner sinks, there aren’t enough lifeboats, and those that are filled are not all filled to capacity. Men, women, and children, drown in the icy waters while the survivors look on helpless to save them, lest they too sink and be drowned.
The biggest part of the novel takes place on the lifeboat where Grace has been saved along with thirty-odd women and a few men. Grace captivates the reading by tales of treachery, of heroics, self-sacrifice, and spiteful gossip. Over and over again, she states that what they were all going through makes it nearly impossible to know if some events occurred or not. Memory is faulty in the best of circumstances. Add in physical, mental, and spiritual trauma that lasts for weeks and you have a recipe for a break from reality.
Why is Grace Winter now in the company of lawyers? She and two other women who survived on the lifeboat are on trial for murder. It is in the final court scenes that we as readers realize how truly unreliable Grace is. A faulty memory and trauma, we can forgive her for, and we can even forgive her for being manipulated by stronger personalities aboard the boat. But then, the mask slips a bit, and we see a glimpse or two of the real Grace, the manipulative Grace, and then, just like in Atonement, the entire story is called into question.
Add to that the inexplicable inclusion of some kind of jewel heist to the plot and the book becomes unputdownable. The hints throughout the story of what is actually going on, are so subtle, that I wasn’t able to peace it altogether. A smarter reader probably would be able to distinguish by the end just who is manipulating whom (ha, I think I used it correctly there!).
The Lifeboat is a fascinating read precisely because the narrator is unreliable. The big question we are left with at the end is: just how unreliable is Grace Winter? The themes of uncertainty of memory, questions others’ intentions, and the tendency of gossip to elaborate upon itself make this a story in which we as readers question ourselves. Most of us have probably never been stranded aboard a lifeboat at sea, wasting away after days of hunger, dehydration, and lack of sleep, but who of us has not ever questioned our own memory of an incident? Who of us has not ever had someone else question our memory of an incident? Police reports abound with witnesses who saw multiple different things at the same time. Are they lying? Is their memory faulty? Or did they all just see different things?
Can you trust yourself? That’s the question the book presents as we inwardly debate Grace Winter’s reliability. Are we more or less reliable than her? If so, why? We think we know how we might act in such a situation as hers, but we really don’t know until we’re put in that situation. We wonder if our own character has flaws that will be embarrassingly revealed under pressure. We desire to be tried and tested, but are afraid we, too, will be found wanting.
The Lifeboat is a book to read in one sitting, if you have the time. One sitting is the closest way to experience what the characters are experiencing, a situation that they cannot leave or put down to come back to. One sitting allows the paranoia in the story to grow on a reader so that by the end you are questioning everything, yet have this nagging feeling that that’s just what the author wants, and that you’ve fallen into the trap. You have been manipulated, but not by Grace. I look forward to reading further work by Ms. Rogan. She has talent, and perhaps most importantly, genuine storytelling ability.