The focus of Grogan’s eerie, troubling novel is the sinking of the luxury ocean liner Empress Alexandra just after the outbreak of the Great War. Grace, the narrator of the tale, is just one of a group of survivors crammed into of lifeboat fourteen. Bodies float and people cling to wreckage while the group of thirty-nine are presided over by overbearing Mr. Hardie who has just saved them from the powerful vortex created by the foundering ship.
With Edwardian notions of male chivalry toward the weaker sex suddenly cast aside, Grace becomes critical to our understanding of the moral morass that shapes her account of survival. Amid a flat sea with water occasionally splashing over the side of the overburdened boat, somewhere out there is her husband, Henry, either sitting on another boat and beating away people, or trying to swim to safety.
Mr. Hardie and his cruelty is something Grace will constantly return to, along with her twisted past that is only made more complicated by her hurried marriage to Henry. On the lifeboat, Hardie with his “seaman’s soul” becomes the assumed leader, immediately forcing the group to adjust to their circumstances. Alternating between stoic silence and eruptions filled with geographical facts about the currents and the lore of the sea, Hardie is strangely determined to save them even though he knows that the boat has not been designed for so many. With the capacity for forty persons, it soon becomes obvious that the lifeboat is riding far too low on the water.
What could be a more hazardous place to be than in a suppurating crowd of doomed men and women where some will have to be sacrificed for the greater good of others? Faced with the horrific and instantaneous designs of Hardie, Grace hopes that her alliance with him will considerably improve her odds of survival. Yet it’s Hardie’s actions that also spur Mrs. Grant to become his most strongest and most vocal opponent. Given an approaching storm, the rapidly diminishing supplies, and the debilitating effects of dehydration, along with the endless passing of the days and nights, it becomes increasingly unlikely to imagine rescue anytime soon.
The musical sound of water lapping against the bottom of the boat do little to overcome the creeping gloom or stop the petty resentments that gradually take hold. When Mrs. Grant is branded a humanitarian and Hardie (at first considered some kind of oracle) is labeled a fiend and lambasted for his failure to provide, a growing undercurrent of anger is added to the proceedings. A fight for supremacy is unexpectedly waged between men and women. Forced to take sides, each character becomes ever-more isolated within their own fractured mind.
Because Grace is the narrator, the reader experiences every detail from her viewpoint, every revelation, restless second, and abandonment to whatever her fate may be. But is Grace reliable, and is she honorable? We know she’s rather selfish and spoiled, and she’s also privy to the sense that some global force has taken her in its grip. But tinged with just a hint of malice, is Grace inadvertently the ring-leader in the inevitable nourishment of mistrust?
Rogan has her characters clinging to their illusions, or at least to what shred of them remains as the collateral damage ripples outwards. In prose that is as clear as the crystal waters in which her lifeboat floats, the author exposes the tensions just beneath the surface, Grace threatened not only by the forces of nature, but by her fellow human beings in what will soon become a fascinating test of endurance and fate.