Uneasiness of The Lifeboat

Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat made me queasy and uneasy, pitching me off the defining center line of my most heart-held certainties: that we are born inherently decent, caring, and altruistic. But then I realized her narrator, who was causing me this internal spiritual vertigo, was a functioning psychopath — and that the novel itself is about the darkness that lurks, not that dominates. And yet, and yet…

Grace Winter is in London for a quickie and quiet wedding, her marriage to wealthy Henry happening just in time to save her from governess-hood. The year is 1914, the archduke Ferdinand and his wife are suddenly assassinated, and impending war has sent Henry and his new bride scurrying for home. Henry’s high society family in Boston has yet to be informed of the marriage (and an ex-fiancee even promises to meet the boat) but Grace is confident that she can win them over (and blow ex-fiancee away), much as she very deliberately won her delightful husband. Her plans go off course, however, when the steamer they are traveling on suffers an explosion, the passengers are off-loaded into life boats, and the nightmare of survival begins. From the very first scene, it is clear that Grace’s maxim, “God helps those who helps themselves” is the rule of the sea, aided by the sidebar of “and don’t help others”: men trying to climb onto Grace’s lifeboat are mercilessly knocked aside with oars, and a child clinging to his dead mother and calling for help is left on his own, drifting in the cold sea.

What happens in the ensuing weeks at sea we find out through the diary of Grace, written while she is awaiting trial for murder. Through her eyes we see how in the boat authority exists alongside its counterpart of repression, control is exacted through petty machinations, and the manipulation of weaknesses is just as vital as the exercise of willpower. The lines blur between goodness and evil, God and the Devil, man and woman, action and inaction. The boat becomes a microcosm of the outside world, a world at war, a society in the throes of change, and the twentieth century being born.

As a parable of the modern world, The Lifeboat is a downer. After all, when “those who help themselves” prevail, the greatest good for the self-helpers is not always such good news for everybody else. But sometimes it takes a downer to spark meaningful discourse about the wavering lines between good and evil. My belief in humanity — kindness, compassion, aid –holds but my understanding of the abyss that waits on either side of authority and repression, faith and control, dominance and submission is deeper than ever before, for having been a passenger on The Lifeboat.