It is 1914, and Grace is adrift on a vast ocean after the ship, the Empress Alexandra, sank following an explosion. Her diary and thoughts tell the story of the suffering, survival and loss of all those on the lifeboat she occupied for three weeks, until rescued. A new bride, she finds herself with 39 strangers, fighting for their very lives. As time passes, their relationships change and bitterness often rears its head, with petty jealousies and foolish power struggles arising from the depths of their despair. They soon begin to mistrust each other and fear they will never be rescued and will soon all die at sea. Are their actions irrational or the result of desperation? They begin to question the judgment of those making the decisions for their very survival, even though they themselves could not or would not have made them, and they know less about the sea and the ordeal awaiting them.
There are many questions that arise as they sink further and further into a state of hopelessness. Could they sacrifice someone for the good of the others when they discover that the lifeboat is overloaded and was never built to the proper specifications? Would they expect the weak to give themselves up for the strong? Should some be sacrificed so others can survive? Is that the humanitarian thing to do or is it self serving since in sacrificing someone else you are saving yourself at their expense? How would you act under such duress? Would you tolerate the weakness of others or expect them to perform equally or surrender their lives so that others might live. Is that barbarism or survival and common sense? Would you hoard food and water to save yourself or share with others? Could you eat raw fish and birds? Should the fate of these survivors, the three women who are on trial, be in the hands of men, because women do not yet have the right to vote, and therefore, cannot serve on a jury? Is that a jury of their peers? Were they guilty or innocent? You, the the reader, will decide their fate along with the jury.
What really happened on the ship to cause its demise? How did Grace earn a place on the lifeboat since it had already begun its descent into the sea and was raised up so she could board? Did her husband bribe Mr. Hardy, who also got on the boat with her? Was Mr. Hardy a villain or a hero? Was Mr. Blake a thief or maligned? How did Henry know these two men? Was someone stealing jewelry? It crossed my mind that Henry was either smuggling jewelry or purchasing her a place on the boat. Which one was it? Was Grace really telling the whole truth in her diary and at her trial, since later on she seemed to remember other random memories? What really happened? Is it truly necessary to find out, to know? Is it necessary to explore the depths to which people sink when they have no food or shelter? Is it simply a given that they lose their humanity and then, once rescued, simply return to normal life, free from guilt? Who becomes the leaders and who the followers when crises arise?
The story explores the need for people to have answers and certainty, even where none exists and yet, do we even need answers to unanswerable questions? It explores the behavior of people when faced with untenable circumstances. Is it perhaps simply best to accept what fate brings us, and move on without looking back? Should we rather look ahead and face life’s new opportunities as we forfeit others? Should we live for ourselves or for the sake of others? Grace describes the reactions of each lifeboat occupant to the controversies that arose and the decisions that were made, which often conflicted with their fragile consciences. Under such duress, do we make decisions we never thought ourselves capable of making, can we forgive ourselves for those decisions? Should we be judged for those decisions when they were made under such extreme conditions?
Grace finds herself on trial for murder, with two other of her lifeboat survivors. Were the decisions they made rational and necessary for the survival of the many or were they the result of premeditated and planned executions? If you murder someone who has murdered another, is that still murder or is that justice? Are decisions made when faced with death, either their own or the death of others, decisions for which they should be culpable? Is it about sacrifice and sorrow, selfishness and compassion, accusations and innocence, remorse and guilt? Is it about courage under the most difficult situations, when we may also exhibit cowardice or strength of equal strength as an alternative? The experience on the lifeboat was harrowing; choosing between life and death for themselves and/or others is a controversial, unrewarded and unwanted task, thrust upon them due to the exigency of the situation. However, survival was of the utmost importance and it often involved deep sacrifice. The book seemed to raise more questions than it answered. While it was thought provoking, requiring a good deal of introspection to discover what we think we might have done in a similar situation, asking us perhaps to make a judgment about the innocence or guilt of those on board, regarding their behavior, the tale of the time on the lifeboat seemed a little too long and tedious, repetitive, and occasionally, even a bit boring. It will, however, make a good choice for book groups, since the discussion about the morality and ethical choices of the lifeboat occupants will surely take center stage.