Virago, £12.99, 275pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Lifeboat, By Charlotte Rogan

The surface question of Charlotte Rogan's debut novel is: what would you do in order to survive? Beneath that, The Lifeboat is a study of knowledge and experience, memory and truth-telling, inventing and forgetting, focused and intensified by confinement in the lifeboat of the title.

The idea that in any story there's a true version of events is an illusion. All narrators are unreliable. That's what happens when you tell stories, fictional or real. People say that it all went very quiet just before the crash, claim they saw things they couldn't have, or get events in the wrong order. We are unreliable because we have no choice. Our memory is faulty: it can only remember itself. What we recall is not the (illusory) truth but the story as we last told it, even if the only person we told it to was ourself.

This is the narrative conundrum of Rogan's novel. It's 1914. A transatlantic liner has foundered: 39 people - 31 of them women, including the young Grace Winter, recently married to a rich husband, and now his widow - find themselves in Lifeboat 14. This is where we begin: in medias res, with scarcely a backward glance except for the two legal episodes in the aftermath which bracket the story.

Lifeboat 14 carries a plaque which says "CAPACITY 40 PERSONS", but it's not true. The ship-owners - echoes of the Titanic are subtly audible - had cut corners, reducing the capacity by 20 per cent, and shaved off another few guineas by not amending the placards. It's the first of many expedient deceptions and untruths.

In nominal charge is a seaman from the ship. We see, at a distance, the sinking; but we know almost nothing of what caused it. We are confined to the lifeboat. Such a tiny stage would daunt the most virtuoso novelist but Rogan is unabashed, handling her circumscribed cast with a masterful deftness of touch.

The answer to the central question of survival is, of course, "whatever it takes". But what it takes varies between individuals. Grace Winter is no better, nor any worse, than any of us. Retrospection comes later. Grace faces four interlocutors: herself aboard the lifeboat, herself in the aftermath, her lawyers and the Court investigating the deaths while survivors were adrift. All, of course, have a different approach to the expedient truth.

The sea-story has an ancient history, running back to the Odyssey, starring the definitive unreliable narrator. Rogan's story is in that great tradition of the sea as a sort of laboratory of our humanity. It's in good company, recalling both William Golding's Rites of Passage, with its demonstration that it is not what is done to one, but what one does, that can destroy a person, and of Beckett's Malone, adrift offshore as night falls and power and order fail forever.

Lifeboat 14 is a crucible for all those ordeals which can disintegrate memory and disorient perception. When our lives are at stake, our senses allow through only what is essential for survival.

Rogan's debut may be later than many writers, and arguably all the better. She has experience of life, and of 20 years' writing without the trimming and flannel of the market to coarsen her voice. In these dark times, that's as cheering as The Lifeboat's being published by Virago, a house which remains true to its founding principles.

She deploys her story's materials (which come back quietly, murmuring in the ear in the night) with a quiet assurance that catches the reader more firmly than any amount of pyrotechnics. Grace Winter may persuade herself that she doesn't understand what is going on, but Rogan certainly does.

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