I spotted a copy of The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan on the new fiction shelf at the library, and it looked interesting enough to give it a go, since I didn’t have anything else in mind. I started it on Tuesday the 26th and finished it this morning, but I wasn’t reading it in a very dedicated manner, and for me, it wasn’t one of those book that you just “can’t put down.”
Initially, I did not realize it was a period piece. I was surprised when I encountered the description of the main character wearing a corset and petticoats. I looked back at the first few pages to see if it was written anachronistically, but I didn’t see any particular words or phrasing that would indicate that. I just hadn’t picked up on the time period from the writing, which I think just means that the style was subtle. Sometimes a historical fiction novel is written with a very forced “old-fashioned” rhetoric, and this book was not like that. It was easy to slip in and out of the book, so I guess the writing style was comfortable – I want to say it was neutral, in regards to time period, but I can’t quite think of the way to put it. “Chronologically neutral” is what keeps popping into my head, so I think I’ll go with that.
I like the mechanism of bringing the reader up to speed gradually by starting off in the present day in a prologue, then backtracking to an earlier point in the sequence of events. The prologue was just vague enough to worry me initially that I would not be given enough information and that it would be intentionally withheld just to keep the reader interested, but enough details were cleared up to satisfy me while still leaving a bit of mystery as to how we got to the events in the prologue. I was drawn in rather quickly, and the balance of giving/withholding was nicely managed throughout the book.
The journal entry style of the book results in the timeline being a bit jumbled, but rather than this being a bad thing, I think it adds more realism to the narrator’s account of her experience. It’s a more organic telling of the story than a chronological one (there’s that word again), with one recollection leading to another memory that is related, but not necessarily next in the succession of events.
Since the author reveals early on the purpose of the narrator’s attempts to record what she remembers of her time in the lifeboat, I got a slight impression that I’m meant to question the accuracy and trustworthiness of the narrator’s account – and I did question it. I found myself wondering not exactly if her memory is to be relied upon, but rather if perhaps she has tweaked the details (a little or a lot) in order to paint herself in a more forgiving light, given the circumstances in which she finds herself in the prologue of the book. It’s very interesting to doubt a narrator in this way. I don’t often come across this technique (if in fact it is intentional), but I do enjoy it, as it lends an unusual element of suspense to a plot that might otherwise have seemed straightforward. That sense of uncertainty continues throughout the book – is the narrator portraying herself honestly? Is she being honest with herself? It’s difficult to tell, and I enjoyed that.
The portions of the book that were the narrator’s journal entries fit nicely into the context of the rest of the book – I mean that there was not a noticeable difference between the language of those chapters that were memories and those that were more current events in the story. There was a difference in another way, which is that the chapters that took place in the lifeboat were absolutely riveting for me, and the parts of the story that took place outside the lifeboat were far less interesting. Possibly the reason for the lack of interest was because of the contrast; when you know that scenes with far more urgency and excitement might lay in store (since the journal and non-journal chapters were intermixed), it is tempting to speed-read through in order to get to the next lifeboat scene. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the non-lifeboat scenes weren’t written well and weren’t also interesting, but they simply couldn’t compete.
The author writes about being in a lifeboat for days as though she has experienced it. There is not only thrill and danger, but Ms. Rogan expresses the monotony of the endless, unchanging hours in a way that induces empathy without a corresponding ennui for the reader. I was fascinated by the narrator’s accounts of the interpersonal dynamics of the other passengers, which seemed utterly believable in the context. I would guess that this indicates a deep understanding of human nature on the author’s part. Adding to the intrigue was that ever-present undercurrent of ambiguity, that small voice of doubt regarding the accuracy of those accounts, given that human memory is fallible at the best of times, and also knowing that the narrator has a great deal of motivation to draw a sympathetic portrait of herself to those who might read her journal.
I enjoyed this quite a bit. It was a captivating story, and one that gets the reader to think about some tough questions of what can be considered moral in some extreme situations. It’s just unsettling enough to be thought-provoking, without being disturbing, although it occasionally ventures close to that territory. This is the author’s debut novel, and I feel confident in saying that I’d read more from her if I stumbled upon another book of hers in the future, but in all honesty, I don’t think I would seek her out. The book sort of petered out for me toward the end, and I wasn’t very motivated to finish it and write a review, since I didn’t feel strongly about it one way or another. It was a rather quick read, though, so probably worth the time I invested in it.