Monday, June 12, 2023

Book Review: The Last Lifeboat

By Jami Denison

In 1940, as the Germans were breathing down English necks, the British government decided to evacuate children off the island completely. The SS City of Benares set sail to Canada in September, carrying 123 children known as sea-vacs. Their parents were assured that a convoy of warships would escort the steamer, as German U-boats heavily patrolled the Atlantic. Instead, the warships abandoned the steamer halfway through, and the Germans attacked. Ninety-eight children were killed. In the confusion, the lifeboats were miscounted. No one realized that boat #12 hadn’t been recovered. With six boys, one woman, and 39 men, the boat sailed for eight days before being spotted. 

This gripping saga inspired historical fiction author Hazel Gaynor’s latest novel, The Last Lifeboat. In her telling, the S.S. Carlisle is the doomed ship… and two women are forever changed. Alice King, looking for a way to contribute to the war effort, volunteers to escort children to Canada on the ship. And widowed Lily Nichols, hiding a sad secret, agrees to send her beloved son and daughter to strangers overseas. 

In lesser hands, this book could have faltered – it is, essentially, a novel about waiting. Alice and Lily, both third-person protagonists, spend a lot of time in their heads. And while the evacuation scenes were fast-paced, there wasn’t a lot of action to depict with eight days in a lifeboat. 

But Gaynor is a very talented writer, and The Last Lifeboat is a page-turner. Alice’s bravery is remarkable, and the reader roots for her to survive and find love. The drama of who will survive as each new day dawns is filled with tension. And Lily, whose son was in the missing lifeboat, cannot believe the boy is really gone, and pushes the government to investigate what happened and why. In subplots, Gaynor also addresses sexism and classism. The book works on many levels. 

Throughout history, wars have been fought mostly by men, but women and children suffer disproportionately during and after war. The Last Lifeboat is a fictional account of a real event, but as the world watches the children of Ukraine suffer, it’s an important reminder that during war, no place is ever truly safe. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Hazel Gaynor:

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