In the late 19th century a large number of shipwrecks led to tales of atrocities committed by those who survived; many were tried for murder and cannibalism. Charlotte Rogan recalls these accounts and marries them with the early 20th century ocean liner disasters of the Titanic and Lusitania to create a harrowing exposition of human behavior.
In 1914, en route from Britain to American, an ocean liner capsizes after a mysterious on-board explosion. Several life boats are filled and launched. In one is Grace Winter, the story's narrator. Grace, a newlywed, fears for the fate of her husband, Henry, from whom she was separated in the chaos as the ship capsized. She joins thirty-eight other survivors in a lifeboat that is designed to hold half that number. These passengers - literally adrift - become psychologically and morally so as the days pass and the odds of surviving dwindle.
We know from the opening prologue that Grace is rescued and is now on trial for her life. The story's tension, therefore, is not a matter of if, but how and who. Rogan masterfully maintains this tension by revealing the story through Grace's wobbly perspective. The reader has an unshakeable sense that this young woman cultivates a naïve and winsome appearance to disguise the cunning and narcissism she has honed to survive life's misfortunes. But who are we to judge? Who knows which sides of ourselves we may be forced to call upon when our lives depend upon it?
And the author does not judge. She creates a claustrophobic and haunting world set upon a merciless sea and lets Fate and the survivors' shifting morals shape events. She allows paranoia to seep into the cutty, hinting at greater plots afoot, but restricts the reader's vision to Grace's self-serving memories.
As compact as this story is, it drags in the middle, as if the author was seeking to stretch the narrative out to reach a full-length novel word count. There is a limit to the dramatic impact of scenes of bailing water and huddling together for warmth. But that is a faint complaint of an otherwise compelling and well-crafted thriller.