14 May, 2013

Making Shore, by Sara Allerton. Book review

Saraband, 2010. ISBN 978-1-887354-74-5. 263 pages.

Making Shore is based on a real incident, the sinking of the merchant ship SS Sithonia by a torpedo in July 1942. All the characters are fictional.

Aged 19, Brian ‘Cubby’ Clarke is the third radio operator on the dilapidated merchant ship SS Sithonia, bound for South America with a cargo of coal. When the ship is torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic 350 miles from the Canary Islands, Brian and his closest friend Joe Green are among the survivors. Adrift in a decaying lifeboat with no fuel for the engine and no sail, slowly dying of thirst under the pitiless tropical sun, the men are pushed to the limit of human endurance and beyond. Amid despair, madness and death, Joe’s generosity and humanity stand out for Brian like a beacon. But Joe’s friendship lays on Brian a last, heartbreaking duty…

According to the historical note and the afterword, Making Shore is a fictional account based on a real incident. Brian Clarke, who had been serving on a torpedoed merchant ship in 1942 and survived the lifeboat journey to shore, was attempting to write his memoirs without much success when a chance encounter led him to publisher Sara Hunt and novelist Sara Allerton. Sara Allerton interviewed him and used his experiences to imagine the characters, motivations and events of the novel. The disclaimer says ‘…a blend of the author’s interpretation of Brian Clarke’s reminiscences and the author’s own imagination and invention of events that did not actually occur.’  It also says that all the characters, including Brian Clarke’s namesake, are fictional.

The novel has three main components: the lifeboat journey; the survivors’ experiences in various prison camps in French West Africa; and an understated romance in Britain that forms the beginning and the end of the novel. The lifeboat journey is the centrepiece and for me was by far the most compelling part. Thirst, heat, fear and privation take a terrible mental and physical toll on the survivors. In these grim circumstances the veneer of civilisation wears horribly thin, throwing into sharp relief some of the best and worst aspects of human nature. Not only is there the suspense of not knowing who will make journey’s end, or at what price, many readers may find themselves trying to imagine how they themselves might react in similar circumstances.

The section in the prison camps would be hard pushed to match the drama of the lifeboat journey, and duly does not, although the interaction between the survivors and the inhabitants of an impoverished West African tribal fishing village is memorable and has an authentic air.  The poignant romance in grey wartime Britain that book-ends the novel is another complete contrast again, and could have come from another world.   

The subject matter – the war at sea in the North Atlantic and its toll in human suffering – inevitably calls to mind The Cruel Sea.  I was consciously trying to avoid making comparisons, not least because The Cruel Sea is one of my favourite novels of all time and sets a near-impossibly high standard for any other novel to measure up to. However, I could not help but be reminded, and this may well account for why I found the writing style in Making Shore rather ‘flat’.  Apart from the lifeboat journey, which was sufficiently harrowing to need little embellishment, the book never seemed to come fully to life.  It also took me a while to work out what was going on in the initial chapters, although the narrative seemed to find its stride once the Sithonia put to sea.

A useful map at the beginning outlines the approximate site of of the sinking and the likely route of the lifeboat.  Brian Clarke’s lively Afterword (titled ‘A Lifetime of Luck’) gives a potted history of his life and how Making Shore came to be written, and is well worth a read in its own right.

Fictional account of the harrowing journey to safety of the survivors of a torpedoed ship in World War II, based on a real incident.

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