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A matter of life and death: The Lifeboat

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The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

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The Titanic sank 100 years ago. The Costa Concordia went down two years ago. The Empress Alexandra -- the liner in Charlotte Rogan's bestselling novel -- sank mid-ocean in 1914. From this disaster, Rogan has crafted a suspenseful and thoughtful tale.

As The Lifeboat opens, Grace Winter a survivor of the wreck, describes her predicament: "I was to stand trial for my life. I was twenty-two years old. I had been married for ten weeks and a widow for over six."

To aid her defense lawyers, Grace -- who had been a first class passenger on the Empress Alexandra -- recounts the harrowing days and nights spent on a lifeboat with 38 fellow passengers and Mr. Hardie, a member of the ship's crew. The boat was built to accommodate half that number. Adrift in the Atlantic, the survivors at first put their trust in Hardie, who assures them that help will come. Grace soon realizes that "It was not the sea that was cruel, but the people. Why should any of us be surprised by that?" The Lifeboat effortlessly drifts into Lord of the Flies territory as class differences erode and survival becomes a matter of primal instinct. Grace, who is at best ambivalent about religion, repeatedly says that "God helps those who help themselves." Did Grace's actions help her to survive her ordeal?

Grace, along with two other women from the lifeboat, are on trial for murder after a power struggle eventually ensues on the small boat. Did their act ensure their survival? Is it morally acceptable to sacrifice some lives so that others can survive rather than sacrificing none and guaranteeing that all will die? She looks back on her life:

For one naive moment, I had all that I needed -- more than I needed; but that, too, had been only a pleasant illusion. I wondered if all a person could hope for was illusion and luck, for I was forced to conclude that the world was fundamentally and appallingly dangerous. It is a lesson I will never forget.

The Lifeboat is compelling and compulsively readable. Grace is a seemingly honest and frank narrator. She has "already taken the measure of my own insignificance, and I survived."

Survived she did -- against insurmountable odds. But did she really tell all? In the end, she mocks the psychiatrist -- a certain stand-in for the reader -- who cared for her before and after her trial: "If I had not felt so sorry for him, I would have laughed at his desire to pin everything down. . . at his childish desire to know."

The Lifeboat is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.

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