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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice