The fictional world of Charlotte Rogan's first novel, The Lifeboat, is claustrophobically intimate. Following an explosion on the ocean liner Empress Alexandra, 39 men, women and children crowd on to a lifeboat. A brass plaque declares that it has been made for 40, but this information, like so much else in Rogan's beautifully nuanced tale, proves deceptive.
As the days drag by, the life of each shipwrecked passenger contracts to fundamental questions. Can water be bailed out of a boat faster than it comes in? Is there a God, and if so, what is he playing at? Would I sacrifice my life for another? Who do I trust? And just how strong is the will to survive?
This portrait of natural, or possibly divine, selection makes The Lifeboat a giddily gripping read. Denied much in the way of broad context, the plot is driven largely by the 39 characters, who quickly form alliances and enmities, often on little more than a glance or a glare. There are two basic camps, divided roughly by gender: in the female corner is the formidable and enigmatic Mrs Grant; in the male one the equally steadfast sailor, Mr Hardie.
Occasionally, this intense microcosm of the world springs a leak, metaphorically as well as literally, and wider realities rush in: it is, for example, 1914 and war is on everyone's minds. Conducting or possibly manipulating our attention in this respect is Rogan's narrator, Grace, whose unsettling combination of naivety and cunning begs many more questions than it answers. This disingenuousness might be explained by the fact that her story doubles as testimony: Grace, Mrs Grant and a third woman, Hannah, are on trial, accused of murdering Mr Hardie.
But Grace was craftily ambiguous long before being stranded at sea: when she says at one point, “I am trying to be honest,” you want to check your pockets. Grace's life on, and before, the Empress Alexandra is presented in elliptical, ambiguous slices. How did she marry (or is that seduce?) her rich husband, Henry? What was his involvement with what seems to be a cargo of gold? How did Grace contrive to escape on the lifeboat in the first place? And what did Henry promise Mr Hardie, just before the liner sank?
It is Grace who suggests deeper possibilities for Rogan's story as a whole. Through her, The Lifeboat becomes a metaphor for conceptions of truth, innocence, identity, class, gender, religion, love, and indeed existence itself. Grace reminds us that, in the end, we are all in the same boat, whether we like it or not. And, try as we might, no one leaves this one alive.