Nearly everybody had a story to tell about the Titanic, which had sunk in a spectacular fashion just over two years before.
Mrs McCain’s younger sister had been one of the survivors, so we listened spellbound to everything she had to say on the subject, and pestered her for details about her sister’s experience. In the case of the Titanic, the problem was the lack of lifeboats, but those who made it into the boats were rescued very quickly. ‘The ship sank at night, so many people were not properly dressed,’ said Mrs McCain. ‘Whenever my sister tells the story, she laughs and says that her biggest worry was the fact that she was wearing on her feet only a pair of jewelled Arabian slippers
and that her ankles showed beneath her robe when she was getting in and out of the boat.’ The other females and I simultaneously looked down at our feet and blushed, which was a nice reminder that somewhere a world existed where this might be our primary concern.
observations: These discussions are taking place as they themselves sit in a lifeboat, waiting to be saved. Unlike those who escaped the Titanic, this party will have to wait a long time for rescue - there are no ships nearby, and there is a question mark over distress messages. But we know from the beginning that the narrator, Grace not only survives, but is being tried for something that happened on the lifeboat.
This is a mysterious book in two senses: it is not clear exactly what happened on the boat, and it is also not clear what you are meant to take from it. Is it an allegory, and if so, what does it mean? It is well-written and clever, the heroine is intriguing and certainly not setting out to captivate either readers or the other people on the lifeboat. I was hoping for an ending that tied everything together or contained some revelation, but that didn’t happen. And there came a point where I couldn’t quite be bothered to try to work out what she was trying to say. But the description of the horrors and deprivations of the lifeboat, and the annoying characters on it, was very compelling and convincing – a great feat of imagination, as presumably Rogan has not been shipwrecked.
Links on the blog: In Daniel Deronda, George Eliot has Catherine Arrowpoint asking the man she loves to marry her, and compares the proposal to a woman leaping from the deck to a lifeboat. There is a dramatic shipwreck in this book, quite surprisingly, and one of Anthony Powell’s books is compared to the film Titanic in this entry.
The lifeboat picture dates from 1912 and shows a lifeboat with survivors from the Titanic. It comes from the US National Archives. The slippers are a detail from a picture by Francesco Renaldi, part of the Google Art Project.