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Man Booker Prize 2011 shortlist: Carol Birch interview

Man Booker Prize 2011 shortlist: Carol Birch interview

In Jamrach's Menagerie, young Jaf sets sail for the South Seas in search of a ‘sea dragon'. Here, Carol Birch nominates her top seafaring stories.

‘The sea with its labouring waves for ever rising, sinking, and vanishing to rise again is the very image of struggling mankind.' So says Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim. A voyage is a rite of passage, a dream, a reckoning, the ship a microcosm of the world, human society intensified. Extreme characters people the great sea stories, burning brightly above unknowable depths - Ahab, John Silver, Wolf Larson in The Sea Wolf. The sea also drives people mad. No wonder it draws writers as surely as it does adventurers. Here then, in no particular order, are ten of the finest examples of the nautical narrative.

Moby Dick - Herman Melville. Massive, endlessly digressive, this magnificent whaling epic is both a fable about the human quest for meaning and a great yarn. The Pequod is a world in itself, doomed by Captain Ahab's obsession with revenge upon the great white whale that took his leg. Dazzling.

The Sea Wolf - Jack London. Effete scholar Van Weyden finds himself stuck on a seal schooner in the Bering Sea with the maddest of all mad sea captains, Wolf Larson. Larson makes Ahab look sane. You do not want to be stuck in the middle of the Bering Sea with him.

The Seafarer - Wild and yearning as the ocean itself, this Old English poem is a glorious elegy to the romance of hardship, a hymn to endurance. The ocean is a drug, constantly drawing the narrator back to a life of sea-suffering.

Das Boot - Lothar-Gunther Buchheim. ‘A hairline crack in an egg - that's all it would take to crack our shell.' A German U-boat crouches deep below the waves as depth charges explode all around it. As a study in claustrophobic terror, it's unparalleled.

The Odyssey - Homer. Odysseus's epic journey home after the Trojan war is one of the oldest and greatest of all epics. Its language and images have passed into the collective consciousness, whether through Ray Harryhausen's Cyclops or a reading of the original. The sirens are still singing.

Lord Jim - Joseph Conrad. Jim jumps ship as a young mate, leaving a boatload of pilgrims to go down, and spends the rest of his life seeking atonement in self-inflicted exile in an Indonesian village. Beautiful prose and a great adventure story; also an acute dissection of idealism struggling with its own human weakness.

Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson. Pure adventure. Pirates, parrots, buried treasure, atolls, storms, greed, madness, all pulled together by a master craftsman.

The Rime of The Ancient Mariner - Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A superb horror story. The mariner shoots the Albatross and is set upon by both natural and supernatural worlds. Endurance, ghosts, philosophy, mystical musings on a dream ocean. Pure magic.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - CS Lewis. A dragon-headed ship sails dreamily on to the ‘utmost east' and the end of the world. The third Narnia chronicle is a small odyssey of haunting encounters on lonely islands and the first sea story ever to carry me away.

The Log from The Sea of Cortez - John Steinbeck. Steinbeck's account of his 1940 trip around the Sea of Cortez collecting marine specimens with his biologist friend Ed Ricketts (Doc in Cannery Row). Scientific and aesthetic wonder blend seamlessly with ponderings on life, the universe and everything. The ocean, he muses, is the supreme symbol of the unconscious. ‘An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a completely dreamless sleep.'

Cthulhu, Dagon and the Kraken still lie beneath.

With thanks to Canongate

About Carol Birch

Carol Birch is the author of nine previous novels including Scapegallows and Turn Again Home, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize. She has won the Geoffrey Faber Award and the David Higham Award. Her latest novel, Jamrach's Menagerie, is longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011.

Listen to our Man Booker Prize podcast on Carol Birch


Carol Birch shot for The Man Booker Prize ((c)Jainey Airey)
Carol Birch shot for The Man Booker Prize ((c)Jainey Airey)