The Stranger in the Lifeboat is essentially what you get when you combine that Sunday school/moral studies parable about the footprints in the sand where God says he’s carrying you, that song What if God was one of us (by whoever, depending on when you grew up), and that movie where Tom Hanks is shipwrecked with a creepy volleyball. There’re also a few shades of Lost and the movie Identity thrown in – all in all, quite a bit of plug-and-play pop culture kitsch from my perspective.
It starts out with a bunch of people in a lifeboat who managed to survive after the luxury yacht they were in, the Galaxy,mysteriously goes down. The survivors include a few super rich/influential people and a few of the staff aboard the yacht.
Three days in, they find a man adrift in the middle of the ocean and pull him aboard. He doesn’t appear to have been on the yacht and nor is he injured,but he does boldly proclaim that he is the Lord and that he can save them. All they have to do is believe. Not surprisingly, this is met with all manner of disbelief from the group.
The story is told mainly from the perspective of two people and it alternates between the two.
The first person is the narrator, whom we only know as Benji for most of the story. He’skeeping an account of the shipwrecked group’s travails in the form of a journal of sorts.
The second is a police inspector in Montserrat – JartyLeFleur – whois called to the scene when a lifeboat from the Galaxy washes up on shore about a year after the yachtwent down.
As it turns out, the Galaxy – when it was still intact – washost to a lot of important people and an incredibly public and decadent get-together of sorts. It sank after a strange explosion, went down pretty quickly and no one had been able to find any survivors or even the wreckage of the ship.
I thought this was pretty strange considering all the fancy equipment we have for this nowadays. But then I remembered that we haven’t been able to find out what happened to the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 nearly eight years after it disappeared, so maybe not that improbable.
Le Fleur, traumatised by the loss of his child and struggling to keep it together, finds Benji’s journal in the lifeboat and rather impulsively decides to keep it to himself. He finds himself absolutely captivated by what the survivors go through and what happened to the yacht. We unravel this mystery along with him.
The Stranger in the Lifeboat is a really well-written book and the story is very captivating. Some of the details of how the survivors manage are just fascinating, from rationing food and water suppliesand fending off circling sharks to repairing damage to the boat and dealing with deaths of those who survived. The desperation of the group and the range of emotions they feel are palpable. Le Fleur’s obsession with Benji’s journal too is very believable as are some of the actions he takes as a result.
When we get to the Lord bits is when I start having issues. I think it’s pretty safe to say this book is more for those with a spiritual bent and the questions of faith and God are not ones I want to particularly grapple with. The mystery of why the ship went down is very intriguing, with some amazing twists and turns, but the steps to the solution are essentially, “have faith”. Bit of a cop-out, if you ask me.
There are a bunch of things that make me squirm.
How does Benji survive? Oh yes, spoiler: for some inexplicable reason, Benji is still alive. Sure, I’m all for the power of faith, but he’s still in the middle of nowhere in the ocean several days after the Galaxy goes down. I lost track of how long they’d been adrift, and then couldn’t be bothered to recheck. He’s dehydrated, has no food or water, is severely sunburnt, and there are still sharks around.That he’s alive means he was rescued by someone or washed up somewhere and was nursed back to health, very likely in a medical facility. Even if this happened in some remote part of the world, how could this be kept quiet for over a year in a time where people obsessively document everything on their phones and put it on the internet? It’s not impossible, but it’s too farfetched.
How did he get to Montserrat? How did he have money for this?
Why did he still have the wreckage of the lifeboat?
If the good Lord told him he wasn’t responsible for the yacht going down, why was he hiding? There were numerous families out there wanting to know what happened to their loved ones and needing some closure.Instead, he decides to play Good Samaritan Therapist to some stranger who was in mourning but knew exactly what happened to their dead loved one.
Also, if God is real, then does faith even matter? That’s like asking people to believe in the existence of a tree, which clearly exists – unless we’re all just part of a simulation. All these philosophical-theological conundrums are not my cup of tea.
And that’s the problem with this book. If you think about it too much, it all kind of falls apart.There are so many more unanswered questions. Instead, you’re expected to just have faith. Unfortunately, that doesn’treally do it for me.
(Ranjana Sundaresan is an F& B analyst and a bookworm)
About the book
The Stranger in the Lifeboat
By Mitch Albom
Publisher: Hachette India
First published: 2021
Number of pages: 267