Book review: The Stranger in the Lifeboat by Mitch Albom

Saturday, November 20, 2021 Permalink

Before The Stranger in the Lifeboat I’d not read anything by Mitch Albom. I’ve not even seen the movie based on his popular book, Tuesdays with Morrie. But something about his latest release had me intrigued.

As a lover of mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction, I knew it wasn’t going to be ‘that’ kind of book, but there was mention of a mystery at the heart of this novel which I thought might appeal. And I certainly enjoyed this book, however it wasn’t really the question posed by the book, but Albom’s writing that had me enchanted.

Book review: The Stranger in the Lifeboat by Mitch AlbomThe Stranger in the Lifeboat
by Mitch Albom
Published by Harper
on 02/11/2021
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 006288834X
Pages: 224

Adrift in a raft after a deadly ship explosion, nine people struggle for survival at sea.

Three days pass. Short on water, food and hope, they spot a man floating in the waves. They pull him in.

“Thank the Lord we found you,” a passenger says.
“I am the Lord,” the man whispers.

The story is narrated by Benji, one of the passengers, who recounts the events in a notebook that is later discovered—a year later—when the empty life raft washes up on the island of Montserrat.

It falls to the island’s chief inspector, Jarty LeFleur, a man battling his own demons, to solve the mystery of what really happened.

Benji was a crew member aboard the luxury ship, Galaxy. And of those in the lifeboat, half were guests of the mega-wealthy owner, Jason Lambert (including Lambert himself) and the others were hired help.

Detail about those on board and some information about the voyage itself is interspersed through the book via news stories and interviews before and after the sinking of the boat.

Benji shares details of the survivors and everything we learn (about what happens in the lifeboat) we see through his eyes and is shaped by his experiences. It’s written in second person as he’s writing in a notebook to a woman called Annabelle.

We also learn a little about Benji’s backstory and his relationship with Annabelle as he reminisces in his writing. On their meeting…

I remember that hour as if I could walk inside it and touch its edges. The curiously of attraction, the stolen glances….

The possibilities of another person! Is there any anticiipation on this Earth quite like that one? Is there anything lonelier than being without it? p 36

And then there’s police chief inspector Jarty LeFleur who remains in mourning after the death of his child and whose marriage is floundering as both he and his wife struggle with their grief.

When LeFleur finds the notebook he’s intrigued by Benji’s story. Of course not only does Benji report on the events in the lifeboat but talks about his possible role in the ship’s demise.

This was certainly not the book I was expecting it to be. Had I known more about the theme and what was at the crux of this story, I might not have ventured inside.

Obviously we (along with the survivors) doubt the stranger’s declaration that he is the lord and there in response to their calls for help. Their incomprehension that he doesn’t seem to be able to help them compounds matters.

This is beautifully written. Albom’s phrasing, his sentences are often enchanting. Poignant. Individually the words are just words however he combines them in such a way at at such a time that they become profound.

The distance between death and life is not as great as you imagine.

And in response then to why people don’t come back to earth after they die, the stranger responds….

Why would they want to? p 32

I often comment on my inability to see deeper meaning in writing. I’m pretty good at analysing human behaviour, but less so when it comes to metaphorical writing and hidden subtext. I wondered about the name of the boat here, Galaxy and whether Albom is considering some larger, deeper reflection on our lives, the actions we take and decisions we make.

There’s an obvious theme of ‘belief’ or faith here – for me at least – rather than religion. When the stranger first boards the lifeboat he’ll tell them they can be saved when they all believe he is who he says he is.

Our narrators – both Benji and LeFleur – struggle with faith and the idea of a ‘god’ particularly when they’ve both suffered losses. As I’m not religious I’ll be interested to see what my mother (who is) thinks of this book. I’m removing god or the lord from the equation when seeking meaning in this narrative, but perhaps for her it’ll be the opposite.

This is a strangely beguiling book. On one level it’s the story of those who’ve survived a shipwreck. On another it’s about faith being tested. And it’s a reminder that those we love live on in our hearts and minds. But there’s more as we’re later even asked to question the veracity of Benji’s storytelling.

It’s now almost two weeks since I read it and I’ve pondered awarding of 4.5 stars rather than 4, but I did so when I started writing the review and realise I was still in its thrall… and suspect it’ll have the same impact on others.

The Stranger in the Lifeboat by Mitch Albom was published by Hachette Australia and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


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