Don’t start The Lifeboat right before bedtime. Charlotte Rogan’s gripping debut won’t let you turn out the light until the last page is turned, and will have you mulling over the questions of survival, sacrifice and responsibility it raises long after that.

Grace Winter has been “married for 10 weeks and a widow for over six” and is on trial for her life when The Lifeboat opens. It seems there are some questions about her actions during the two weeks she spent in a small lifeboat on the Atlantic with 38 other survivors of the sinking of the Empress Alexander. To get the events straight in her own mind, Grace begins an account of the wreck and its aftermath, blending in the story of her courtship with and brief marriage to the wealthy Henry Winter. It gradually becomes clear that this isn’t the first time Grace’s mettle has been tested: Perhaps the steely drive necessary to climb the ranks of Edwardian society is the ultimate survival skill.

Originally, the stunned passengers on Lifeboat 14 continue in the rigidly defined roles of class and gender that they held on the ship. The one seaman on board, Mr. Hardie, takes charge, rationing out the meager stores of food; the men take the oars, the women sit quietly and console one another. But as the days pass, keeping order becomes more of a challenge. Two female passengers ally against Mr. Hardie, questioning his decisions and sowing discontent among the hungry survivors. Pragmatic Grace sees the divisions forming and is determined to be on the winning side. But at what cost?

Survival stories often showcase the beauty of human nature, our ability to rise above circumstances to care for our fellow man. The Lifeboat is not that novel. What Rogan finds under our veneer of civility is pure animal nature, red in tooth and claw—in a way, the sinking of the luxurious Empress Alexandra echoes mankind’s fall from grace. “We were stripped of all decency. I couldn’t see that there was anything good or noble left once food and shelter were taken away,” writes Grace. Her dispassionate narration of harrowing events somehow makes their impact even more powerful.

Though the narrative frame means that Grace’s survival is assured, the suspense of The Lifeboat never lets up, and it is a testament to Rogan’s talent that a novel that so insightfully confronts existential questions is also a complete and utter page-turner. This compelling, smart and resonant work is certain to stand as one of the year’s best debuts.

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