The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan, is a dark and complicated mystery that leaves much for the reader to deduce. The book’s main character is Grace Winter, and the closing lines of the Prologue describe the book’s central conflict succinctly: “ . . . I was to stand trial for my life. I was twenty-two years old. I had been married for ten weeks and a widow for over six.”
Grace and her new husband Henry had wed in Europe and were returning to the United States to meet his parents, who had hoped for a different match for Henry. Aboard the Empress Alexandra, Henry engages in mysterious business conversations which may or may not have had anything to do with a particular valuable cargo onboard. When the Empress Alexandra flounders and is in distress, Henry hands Grace into a full lifeboat. It is the last time Grace will see her new husband.
The book details the declining circumstances of the survivors on the crowded lifeboat—the lack of food, the dwindling supplies of fresh water, the illness and desperation of the passengers. Mr. Hardie, the ship’s one crewman aboard, assumes command of the lifeboat early in their travails, but disagreements among the passengers lead to the denouement which results in Grace’s trial for murder.
The reader is left to decide many of the other elements of the story, which may have been factors in the central mystery of Grace’s murder charge: Did the explosion onboard the Empress Alexander occur before the ship sank or after? Could it have been sabotage? What was the root of the disagreement between Mr. Hardie and the other seaman he refused to help? What transpired between Mr. Hardie and Henry Winter that caused them to raise the full lifeboat and put her aboard? And where did the coins come from that appeared after the wreck? Could someone still be alive who was presumed dead?
Terrific fodder for a book club discussion, the unanswered questions provide a mystery beyond the one Rogan narrates in The Lifeboat. The Lifeboat was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2012.