Our knowledge of the Second World War is informed by a patchwork of memories provided by those who experienced the conflict, pieced together by writers in the years since to form a picture of suffering and survival that spanned the globe.
Brian ‘Cubby’ Clarke, 87, was a merchant seaman during the war. He was keen to ensure his story would survive him but when his attempts at writing a memoir stalled, independent publisher Saraband put him in touch with Oxford graduate and first-time author Sara Allerton. Together, they brought to life a compelling, memorable tale of endurance.
Making Shore describes the perils faced by merchant sailors as they steered supply ships across an Atlantic ocean crawling with German submarines in 1942. Allerton’s fictional interpretation of Clarke’s real experiences fuses the adventures of a young radio officer on board the Sithonia, with a poignant love story. When the ship is torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat en route to South America, the sensitive depiction of the crew’s struggle portrays the deep and bitter irony of being completely surrounded by undrinkable seawater, as the men are withered inside and out by thirst and sun exposure: “Water. The want of it had taken each one of us by the neck and forced us through the vale of death. And there, the garbs of social conscience, of sanity, of our fragile humanity, like the flesh about our bones, had dropped away.” As the crew’s “fragile humanity” gives way to conflict and desperation, the struggle for survival proves to be a deranged, dirty and dangerous business.
But Making Shore depicts an emotional journey and it is often the mundane, horribly intimate details that have the most power – creeping insanity brought on by drinking seawater and the unrelenting torpor of severe dehydration. But as these horrific events unfold, a touching bond flourishes between two newfound friends, that is strengthened, rather than divided, by their life-and-death ordeal. While the tale of survival is more vividly illuminated than the laboured encounters between the narrator and his friend’s grieving lover, Allerton’s powerful prose has secured considerable public support and the novel won this year’s People’s Book Prize.
Making Shore is a reminder, lest we forget, that the ‘fictional autobiography’ is an imaginative means to preserve the memories of extraordinary wartime events and ensure they do not die with those who endured them.