First-time novelist Rogan’s architectural background shows in the precision with which she structures the edifice of moral ambiguity surrounding a young woman’s survival during three weeks in a crowded lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic in 1914.
The novel begins with Grace back on American soil, on trial for her actions on the boat. Two other female survivors who are also charged, Hannah and Mrs. Grant, plead self-defense. Grace, guided by her lawyer Mr. Reichmann, who has had her write down her day-by-day account of events, pleads not guilty. Rogan leaves it up to the reader to decide how reliable a narrator Grace may be. Newly impoverished after her father’s financial ruin and subsequent suicide, New Yorker Grace set her sites on the wealthy young financier Henry Winter and soon won him, never mind that he was already engaged. They sailed together, pretending to be married, to London, where he had business and they legally wed before boarding Empress Alexandra (named for the soon-to-be-assassinated Tsarina) to return home. When an unexplained explosion rocks the ship, Henry gallantly places her, perhaps with a bribe, into a lifeboat already packed to over-capacity. She never sees him again. An Empress crewmember, Mr. Hardie, quickly takes charge of the passengers, distributing the limited rations and organizing work assignments with godlike authority. As hope for quick salvation dims, passengers fall into numb lethargy. Some go mad. There are natural deaths and (reluctantly) voluntary sacrificial drownings. Dissention grows. Mr. Hardie’s nemesis is the sternly maternal Mrs. Grant and feminist Hannah, who plant suspicions about his motives and competence. Grace avoids taking sides but eventually helps the other women literally overthrow him into the sea. Is she acting out of frail weakness, numbed by her ordeal, or are her survival instincts more coldblooded? Even she may not be sure; much of her conversation circles morality and religion.
The lifeboat becomes a compelling, if almost overly crafted, microcosm of a dangerous larger world in which only the strong survive.