by Charlotte Rogan
On a transatlantic cruise to America in the summer of 1914, the Empress Alexandra sinks (under somewhat vague circumstances). Grace Winter, an attractive young woman who has just escaped her fate as a governess by seducing an already-betrothed, very wealthy man, takes to a lifeboat that is already crowded, and even less capacious than it is meant to be, due to cost-cutting by the ship's owners. With 38 others, mostly women, Grace drifts as storms rage and water supplies dwindle. The passengers would have perished early on if it weren’t for the single seaman among them, Mr. Hardie, who takes control of the supplies and makes God-like decisions to keep them alive: he steers the boat away from a young boy clinging to wreckage and knocks swimmers trying to climb aboard back into the water. There is evidence that Hardie is not exactly a saint, but Grace is grateful for his ability to keep them afloat and comes to admire him deeply. Eventually, the passengers realize that some of them must die that others may live. However, an older woman named Mrs. Grant resents Hardie’s callous manner and unpopular decisions, and leads a mutiny against him – which Grace also goes along with. (She presents herself, alternately, as hypnotized by the charisma of Hardie and Grant, and then as someone quite determined to survive and willing to make hard decisions on her own.) After their rescue, Grace and Mrs. Grant are charged with murder.
It’s a fascinating book that works as a thrilling adventure at sea, an examination of the staid Edwardian mores of the era and how they crumble under the unyielding reality of nature, and it also serves as a deeper rumination on the ethics of group survival. This is Rogan’s first novel, but she writes with a very assured tone and rich imagery (on a storm: “the boat… climbed the foamy heights of the waves and then descended into hellish troughs so that we were surrounded on four sides by walls of black water;” on thirst: “my tongue sat in my mouth like a dead animal, no longer supple and quick, but parched and cracking, like a dried and hairless mouse”). The rickety boat, the bailing, and tensions that run increasingly fraught all come to life. I’m not sure that Rogan adequately conveys what would have been the deplorable over-crowded conditions on the boat (although demure, not altogether reliable Grace Winter, with her Edwardian proprieties, may be the one doing the skipping over in this area). In any case, this is a terrific book, especially for a first novel, and its ambiguity allows the reader to make his own conclusions about Grace’s culpability, or what might have been the “moral” thing to do in such a situation.