On the 100th anniversary of the wreck of the Titanic, our fascination with the ill-fated ship appears bottomless. Surely, that’s in part because we can’t help contemplating the queasy-making moral choices — women and children first! — that in many cases determined who sank or survived.
Charlotte Rogan manages to distill this drama about what’s right and wrong when the answer means life or death into a gripping, confident first novel. It’s not, thank goodness, about the Titanic; we already have an overdose of books, articles and TV specials about that. Her story follows a lifeboat with 39 survivors from a fictional ocean liner, the Empress Alexandra, that sinks en route from London to New York. It’s set in 1914 — two years after the Titanic’s demise — and told in diary form from the perspective of an enigmatic young American named Grace Winter. A newlywed, Grace’s wealthy husband, Henry, never made it onto the lifeboat in the confusion following the mysterious explosion that caused the disaster. It’s quickly obvious that she’s a survivor, in every sense. Her expedient principle is “God helps those who help themselves!”
The first chapter finds Grace, along with two other survivors, in jail awaiting trial for murder at sea. Why they’re charged isn’t yet revealed. Grace begins her story by describing the overloaded lifeboat as it pulls away from the sinking ship: John Hardie, a salty seaman who becomes a sort of captain of the boat, kicks a drowning man in the face when he tries to climb aboard. Grace, drawn to the power he wields as the only crewman and keeper of their meager rations, defends his behavior. “I question whether it can even be called cruelty when any other action would have meant our certain death,” she writes. “We could not save everybody and save ourselves.”
As the days pass with no rescue on the horizon, Grace details the continuous power struggles and machinations among the cold, wet, starving passengers, who include an Anglican deacon, an irreligious accountant, and Hardie’s rival for control of the boat, the stoic Ursula Grant. As their desperation mounts, so do the number of pointed discussions about how they might “lighten the load.” That lightening is at the crux of the trial.
Grace’s account can’t be wholly trusted when we know it’s to be evidence in a murder trial. But “The Lifeboat” isn’t about what really happened; it’s about the tenuous validity of moral judgments, at least in a case like this one. As the trial drags on, Grace scoffs at the lawyers’ attempts to make “actions fit neatly into either the virtuous column or the criminal one.”
“Perhaps,” Grace muses aloud in court, “a person could not be both alive and innocent.”
Other novels have examined the conscience and guilt of a survivor among the dead, but few tales are as thoughtful and compelling as this.
Ianzito is a freelance writer.