Book review: Making Shore by Sara Allerton

Former Lancashire man Brian Clarke had an incredible wartime story to tell...the only trouble was he couldn’t put it into words.

Tuesday, 14th December 2010, 6:00 am

So he placed his harrowing tale of hardship and survival into the capable hands of Lytham St Annes writer Sara Allerton who turned his real-life ordeal into a novel of raw intensity and startling emotional power.

Making Shore is a remarkable achievement, a perfect marriage of memories and imagination which stitches together fact and fiction using a thread of heart-stopping romance – and it only narrowly missed out on the final shortlist for this year’s Costa First Novel award.

Allerton brings to life the terrible events faced by wireless operator Clarke and the other crew members of the merchant ship SS Sithonia which sank after a U-boat torpedo strike as it headed solo across the Atlantic in 1942.

For 20 days they drifted in a lifeboat enduring terror, near madness and mind-numbing tedium, and when those who were still alive did make land, it was not the salvation that they had longed for.

Clarke, now aged 87, whose family made their home in Preston in the years before the Second World War, was one of the unsung Merchant Navy heroes who ran the gauntlet of German U-boats to keep Britain stocked and afloat.

As well as paying tribute to their sacrifices, Allerton plays out the bare bones of Clarke’s experiences in a story of friendship, love and loyalty that is as moving as it is dramatic.

Brian ‘Cubby’ Clarke is only 19 years old when he sets sail from Liverpool on a mission that will take his ship through predatory packs of enemy submarines.

Chief radio operator is Joe Green, a big bear of a man with whom Cubby strikes up an instant rapport. Joe is older, wiser, has an easy grin and possesses an irrepressible good humour.

The love of Joe’s life is Maggie, the girl who took him from the wildness of youth and gave him purpose. She’s the love of his life and his only regret is that he hasn’t yet got round to asking her to marry him.

When their ship is torpedoed and sinks 350 miles from the Canary Islands, the crew scrambles onto two lifeboats. Unfortunately for Joe and Cubby, they are on board the one that gets hopelessly lost.

As food and water run out, the strong, fit sailors are soon reduced to a rudderless, bedraggled and disheartened group of vulnerable men.

Some lose their minds and fall desperately ill after being tempted to drink sea water while others become dangerously aggressive. Real courage, it turns out, is not the absence of fear so much as the refusal to give it rein.

As his end draws near, Joe makes Cubby pledge to find Maggie and tell her an unthinkable lie...that he never loved her. Joe wants Maggie to be angry, not broken; a survivor rather than a mourner.

When the lifeboat eventually reaches land, the survivors discover that their ordeal is far from over, because this is not the friendly Canary Islands but the coast of Mauritania where French Vichy colonialists view the British as the enemy.

And even if Cubby makes it to liberation, he faces the heartbreaking task of carrying out Joe’s difficult dying wish.

Richly descriptive and exquisitely drawn, Making Shore is both a gripping action story and a compelling romance.

An impressive debut.

(Saraband, paperback, £9.99)