Friday, 4 May 2012
I was looking forward to reading Charlotte Rogan's debut novel The Lifeboat, which has been massively hyped. (Hilary Mantel calls it a splendid book, that 'rivets the reader's attention and ... seethes with layered ambiguity.') But that final sentence of the novel rather sums up why I found it an unsatisfying read.
Two years after the Titanic, another ocean liner sinks as passengers are fleeing from Europe at the outbreak of war. Grace is the last passenger to board lifeboat 14, perilously overloaded - and as the novel opens she and two other women are on trial for the murder of charismatic Mr Hardie, the crew member in charge of the boat. Grace had been on her honeymoon trip but she isn't quite the innocent young bride she appears; after the loss of her family's fortune and her father's suicide, she has schemed her way to marrying a wealthy young banker. The Lord, she feels, helps those who help themselves.
But during three weeks on the lifeboat, it becomes clear that some must die in order that others survive. When a power struggle develops between Hardie and the redoubtable Mrs Grant, Grace bides her time. Lord of the Flies meets Drownton Abbey? That's about the measure of it. How far will any of us go to survive? And how far must women go to survive in a man's world?
I'm sure this book will be popular with book groups but to me it seemed at risk of sinking under the weight of too many issues and ultimately I didn't care much whether the characters survived, either their trial at sea or their trial in the courtroom. Most of the passengers seem fairly indistinguishable and that proto-feminist power struggle didn't convince me.
The novel was inspired by a famous court case of 1884 after two shipwrecked seamen killed and cannibalised their cabin boy. Now that might have been gripping...