Liverpool 1940. Alice King stands on the deck of SS Carlisle, waiting to escort a group of children to Canada as overseas evacuees. She is finally doing her bit for the war.
In London, as the Blitz bombs rain down and the threat of German invasion looms, Lily Nicholls anxiously counts the days for news of her son and daughter’s safe arrival.
But when disaster strikes in the Atlantic, Alice and Lily – one at sea, the other on land – will quickly become one another’s very best hope. The events of one night, and the eight unimaginable days that follow, will bind the two women together in unforgettable ways.
Inspired by a remarkable true story, The Last Lifeboat is a gripping and triumphant tale of love, courage and hope against the odds.
Publisher: Harper Collins
Format: Ebook, Audio, Hardback (8 June 2023) | Paperback 25 April 2024
Source: Copy to review
My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the invite and to the publisher for the copy to review. I’ve loved Hazel’s books ever since her debut novel, The Girl Who Came Home – all about the Titanic, and you can find other reviews of her books via the search bar.
I knew that children had been evacuated away from the bombing of cities during the blitz because my father had been sent from London to a farm in the country as a young boy. However I didn’t realise that children had also been sent voluntarily by ship to countries such as Canada and Australia – and part of this story highlights the technicality of the whole process and its downfalls.
The Last Lifeboat is an emotive and heartrending read. Inspired by true events, the unimaginable suffering of the survivors drifting day after day with dwindling food and water rations, sickness and at the mercy of the elements tugged at the heartstrings. There was the dreadful irony of the boat being surrounded by water but the occupants being unable to drink it despite their desperate thirst. The story is made even more poignant knowing that the inspiration for the book was the real life sinking in 1940 of the British evacuation ship SS City of Benares. In this fictionalised story, the fate of 90 children – ‘seavacs’, their escorts and other adults making their way to Canada for safety had their journey tragically brought to an end by a torpedo from a German u-boat. Even more distressing because the ship was apparently to be safely escorted by a convoy of other British navy vessels.
Widowed mother of two, Lily Nicholls makes the heartbreaking decision to send her young children Georgina and Arthur away and into the care of CORB escort Alice King – a 28 year old teacher/librarian determined to assist in the war effort. They will be sailing on the SS Carlisle, and Lily trusts the authorities when they say children would be safer than remaining in London with so many bombing raids. However the devastating subsequent events force her into taking action. She was probably my favourite character and together with another of the escort’s relatives she was quite magnificent in her efforts find out what really happened and to take on those in charge of the doomed operation.
Beautifully written with superb detail and characterisation, the story moves between the perspective of Lily in London and seavac escort Alice King and her fellow survivors in the lifeboat. Because the focus is on just a few passengers, it was easy to forget that there were actually 35 people in the lifeboat – all needing to share the scant emergency rations and cramped conditions. Occasionally between chapters are the brief observations on wartime life of an anonymous diarist – one of many members of the public tasked with recording personal diaries as part of a national Mass Observation exercise. I had my own thoughts as to the identity of the comments and I was partly right.
The Last Lifeboat is a captivating story of a mothers love, grief and loss and above all the courage and desire to survive against all the odds. It was an exceptional read and one that is highly recommended.
Hazel Gaynor is an award-winning, New York Times, USA Today, and Irish Times bestselling author of historical fiction, including her debut The Girl Who Came Home, for which she received the 2015 RNA Historical Novel of the Year award. The Lighthouse Keeper’s
Daughter was shortlisted for the 2019 HWA Gold Crown award, and The Bird in the Bamboo Cage was shortlisted for the 2020 Irish Book Awards. She is published in twenty languages and twenty-seven countries. Hazel lives in Kildare with her family.
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