The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan is published today, a book you will have already heard a lot about, from us as well as from others. A page-turning story of moral dilemmas, with one of the most intriguing and complicated heroines you will encounter, it tells the story of the aftermath of an explosion aboard a luxury transatlantic liner, just two years after the tragedy of the Titanic.
This is the first chapter:
The Lifeboat – Prologue
Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them. A thunderstorm arose as we were leaving the court for lunch. They dashed for cover under the awning of a nearby shop to save their suits from getting wet, while I stood in the street and opened my mouth to it, transported back and seeing again that other rain as it came at us in gray sheets.
I had lived through that downpour, but the moment in the street was my first notion that I could live it again, that I could be immersed in it, that it could again be the tenth day in the lifeboat, when it began to rain.
The rain had been cold, but we welcomed it. At first it had been no more than a teasing mist, but as the day progressed, it began to come down in earnest. We held our faces up to it, mouths open, drenching our swollen tongues. Mary Ann could not or would not part her lips, either to drink or to speak. She was a woman of my age. Hannah, who was only a little older, slapped her hard and said, ‘Open your mouth, or I’ll open it for you!’ Then she grabbed Mary Ann and pinched her nostrils until she was forced to gasp for air. The two of them sat for a long time in a sort of violent embrace while Hannah held Mary Ann’s jaws open, allowing the gray and saving rain to enter her, drop by drop.
‘Come, come!’ said Mr Reichmann, who is the head of the little band of lawyers hired by my mother-in-law, not because she cares one jot about what happens to me, but because she thinks it will reflect badly on the family if I am convicted. Mr Reichmann and his associates were calling to me from the sidewalk, but I pretended not to hear them. It made them very angry not to be heard or, rather, not to be heeded, which is a different and far more insulting thing, I imagine, to those used to speaking from podiums, to those who regularly have the attention of judges and juries and people sworn to truth or silence and whose freedom hangs on the particular truths they choose to tell. When I finally wrenched myself away and joined them, shivering and drenched to the bone but smiling to myself, glad to have rediscovered the small freedom of my imagination, they asked, ‘What kind of trick was that? Whatever were you doing, Grace? Have you gone mad?’
Mr Glover, who is the nicest of the three, put his coat around my dripping shoulders, but soon the fine silk lining was soaked through and probably ruined, and while I was touched Mr Glover had offered his coat, I would much rather it had been the coat of the handsome, heavy-set William Reichmann that had been ruined in the rain.
‘I was thirsty,’ I said, and I was thirsty still.
‘But the restaurant is just there. It’s less than a block away. You can have any sort of drink you like in a minute or two,’ said Mr Glover while the others pointed and made encouraging noises. But I was thirsty for rain and salt water, for the whole boundless ocean of it.
‘That’s very funny,’ I said, laughing to think that I was free to choose my drink, when a drink of any sort wasn’t something I wanted. I had spent the previous two weeks in prison, and I was only free pending the outcome of a proceeding that was now in progress. Unable to restrain my laughter, which kept lapping at my insides and bursting out of me like gigantic waves, I was not allowed to accompany the lawyers into the dining room, but had to have my meal brought to me in the cloakroom, where a wary clerk perched vigilantly on a stool in the corner as I pecked at my sandwich. We sat there like two birds, and I giggled to myself until my sides ached and I thought I might be sick.
‘Well,’ said Mr Reichmann when the lawyers rejoined me after the meal, ‘we’ve been discussing this thing, and an insanity defense doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all.’ The idea that I had a mental disorder filled them with happy optimism. Where before lunch they had been nervous and pessimistic, now they lit cigarettes and congratulated one another on cases I knew nothing about. They had apparently put their heads together, considered my mental state and found it lacking on some score, and, now that the initial shock of my behavior had worn off and they had discovered that it could perhaps be explained scientifically and might even be exploited in the conduct of our case, they took turns patting me on the arm and saying, ‘Don’t you worry, my dear girl. After all, you’ve been through quite enough. Leave it to us, we’ve done this sort of thing a thousand times before.’ They talked about a Dr Cole and said, ‘I’m sure you will find him very sympathetic,’ then rattled off a list of credentials that meant less than nothing to me.
I don’t know who had the idea, whether it was Glover or Reichmann or even that mousy Ligget, that I should try to recreate the events of those twenty-one days and that the resulting ‘diary’ might be entered as some kind of exonerating exhibit.
‘In that case, we’d better present her as sane, or the whole thing will be discounted,’ said Mr Ligget tentatively, as if he were speaking out of turn.
‘I suppose you’re right,’ agreed Mr Reichmann, stroking his long chin. ‘Let’s see what she comes up with before we decide.’ They laughed and poked the air with their cigarettes and talked about me as if I weren’t there as we walked back to the courthouse where, along with two other women named Hannah West and Ursula Grant, 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.
Here's a selection of keyword-matched articles that you might also find interesting: