The Last Lifeboat by Hazel Gaynor | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction
The Last Lifeboat by Hazel Gaynor

By Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

The Last Lifeboat by Hazel Gaynor

The Last Lifeboat by Hazel Gaynor is published with Harper Collins and is described as ‘an unforgettable and deeply moving story of determination and courage’The Last Lifeboat is loosely based on a shocking true event that took place near midnight on September 17th, 1940. The SS City of Benares had set sail from Liverpool enroute to Canada, with a passenger list of 400, including 100 children, evacuees being transported to safety, away from the bomb-riddled skies of home. But, on that fateful night, the ship was struck by a German torpedo taking the lives of 87 children and 175 adults. A number of lifeboats were lowered but in the panic that ensued many tipped over casting their load into the freezing Atlantic. A terrible storm was in play that night adding to the pure fear of those hanging on with a glimmer of hope for their rescue and survival. One lifeboat went very much off-course outside the grid of the search party and it was assumed the passengers on that lifeboat had all lost their lives, but that was not the case. Their extraordinary story of survival and heroism is recounted, blending a mix of fact and fiction, in this very affecting and powerful novel.

Alice King is a teacher, now working as a librarian, in a small rural town in Kent. Her life is small but this suits Alice as she very much shies away from stepping outside her comfort zone. Her sister Kitty lives in London, loving the hustle and bustle of life there but, as the war progresses, life for them all changes radically. Through Kitty, Alice hears of CORB, the Children’s Overseas Reception Board and, in a heated moment, she fills out an application form to become one of the escorts that would provide assistance to children evacuees being sent away for their safety during these challenging and dangerous times. When she gets the call that her application has been accepted, she’s very nervous but also excited at the prospect of doing something radically different but also something that is important and worthwhile. Alice was good with children. This was a job where she felt she could really make a difference to the lives of others. She felt useful for the first time in a long while.

Lily Nicholls is a widow living in London with two young children, Georgie and Arthur. Lily grieves for her husband Peter and his untimely death, finding it a struggle to be present in her children’s lives. When the bombing raids begin in earnest, Lily hears about CORB and its plans to safely transport children away from the terror of war. With a very heavy heart, she agonises over whether to hand over her beloved Georgie and Arthur into the hands of CORB or keep them by her side. Can she trust the government and those in power to do right by her, and all the parents making such a heart-breaking decision?

Unbeknownst to Alice and Lily their fate is about to become entangled in the most terrifying way when the SS Carlisle becomes the target of a German U-boat. The calamitous scenes that unfold are gut-wrenching with very potent and horrifying images, all very vividly depicted through the remarkable writing of Hazel Gaynor. I cried real tears as I went deeper into this novel, with my mind trying to imagine the pure desperation and horror experienced by so many in this shocking and, possibly avoidable tragedy. Although Lily and Alice are fictional characters, Alice King was inspired by Mary Cornish, a music teacher and the only woman on board lifeboat twelve.

The Last Lifeboat by Hazel GaynorThe Last Lifeboat is a breath-taking, commanding novel. An extraordinary story of bravery amidst such devastation and tragedy, Hazel Gaynor has yet again highlighted an extraordinary tale that will leave any reader shocked and emotionally depleted. A truly immersive and phenomenal book, The Last Lifeboat is one that will stay in my mind for quite some time. I get genuine shivers when I think about that fateful night in 1940 and this is completely down to the remarkable writing of Hazel Gaynor. A beautiful and very emotional tribute, The Last Lifeboat is an exceptional book, one not to be missed.

(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

Order your copy online here.


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