The most remarkable achievement within Charlotte Rogan's debut novel, "The Lifeboat," is how neatly it exceeds, and defies, expectations.
The plot seems basic: Some people clamber aboard a lifeboat as a ship sinks, and we think we're all set for a tale in which someone inevitably will be eaten for dinner. But Rogan delivers something entirely different (rest easy, no one gets eaten) by using a familiar setting to explore moral ambiguity, human nature and the psychology of manipulation. And there are enough symbolism and metaphor here to keep a literature class busy for half a semester.
The novel begins with, in a sense, the ending. Grace Winter is on trial with two other women after being rescued from a lifeboat. We learn Winter had been recently married, and even more recently widowed, and as she leans her head back and opens her mouth to catch raindrops from a sudden downpour, we realize that she also is a little bit off.
The gist of the book is a narration Grace puts together at the behest of her lawyers as they try to find an argument to save her from the gallows for a crime yet to be revealed. We learn through her narrative that she was returning from London with her wealthy husband when the Empress Alexandra luxury liner suffered an unexplained explosion and sank in the North Atlantic.
How Grace managed to get in the lifeboat is murky. Did her husband bribe the crew member, John Hardie, as he lowered Lifeboat 14 to the water? Speculation becomes fact, on this and other matters, as the 39 people (30 are women and one is a small boy) jammed into the lifeboat become a metaphor for a closed community in which idleness and fear warp minor details into intricate — and speculative — plots.
Rogan uses this setup in crosscutting ways, and at times it reads like an update of William Golding's "Lord of the Flies," the classic tale of British schoolboys' primitive struggle for power and survival after becoming marooned on an uninhabited island.
Yet Rogan also focuses on faith. Early on in "The Lifeboat," Grace — the name is no accident — says she thought of the disappeared ship "as I have often thought of God — responsible for everything, but out of sight and maybe annihilated, splintered on the rocks of his own creation." So it comes as no surprise that the only minister aboard the lifeboat makes an early exit, a loser in a possibly rigged lottery to select those who must heave themselves overboard to lighten the load.
The message is clear: God, if he exists, has forsaken the survivors. Imminent mortality hovers over every act. To jump up is to risk swamping the boat. A squall is an existential threat. And Grace herself is not what we initially think. She is malleable, suggestible, but also shrewdly manipulative — of others as well as herself. She moves from conscious contrivance to self-delusional belief with the speed of a politician. Rogan gives Grace a voice of naiveté, but we quickly learn not to trust it. The more Grace tells the reader, the more she reveals of herself in a delicate balance of writing.
Some of Rogan's passages are clear allegory and intended to make the reader think beyond the scope of the plot itself. The lifeboat is the world: "I spent many hours wondering if there were an optimal size to the world — some equilibrium sets of dimensions where things wouldn't boil over and where I would be safe.... I wondered if all a person could hope for was illusion and luck, for I was forced to conclude that the world was fundamentally and appallingly dangerous."
We're told in several places that survival would come of human effort, not faith. Thomas Hobbes, who observed that without community human "life is nasty, brutish and short," gets a mention for believing "that people are moved primarily by desire for power and fear of others," an observation that plays itself out in Rogan's novel in dramatic and convincing fashion.
The message is clear: Human action is required to survive. To wait is to die. To wait for God is to wait for Godot.
It's worth noting too that "The Lifeboat" came later in life for Rogan, who graduated from Princeton in 1975 after studying architecture, then worked in the field and also as a stay-at-home mother to triplets. She writes with a sense of control that is often missing in the first novels of younger writers.
Sailing relatives were part of the impetus for the novel, and though Rogan writes of the ocean with a poet's eye, she also refuses to romanticize the harsh reality. As a storm approached, the water "was bluish-black and rolled past us like an unending herd of whales. The lifeboat alternately rose high on their broad backs and slid down into the deep depressions between them. Above, clouds hurtled through the sky before the wind.... I shivered, and for the first time since the day of the shipwreck, I felt profoundly afraid. We were doomed."
As it turns out, some were indeed doomed. But the sea was not the culprit. In the end, the mortal threat was mortal itself — yet another metaphor for those of us still here in the metaphorical lifeboat.
Irvine-based writer Martelle's most recent book is "Detroit: A Biography."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times