Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute ~ 1955. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1956. Alternative American title: The Breaking Wave. Hardcover. 250 pages.
My rating: 8/10
Nevil Shute has something personal to say in each and every one of his novels, and the essence of this one is that war, for some, can be very good indeed. The high point, in fact, of one’s life, encompassing as it were the greatest intensity of emotional and physical experience. In fact, Shute is credited with the following quotation, from a 1943 interview: “War is an activity both exciting and fulfilling, if you survive.”
This might seem to be deeply ironic in regard to this novel, as the entire plot of Requiem for a Wren turns on the emotional breakdowns of two members the British armed forces, due to their experiences during the build-up to the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944.
But that is all gone into with sincere eloquence near the end of this very moving novel, which is otherwise told in Shute’s slightly flat and deeply earnest style.
Australian Alan Duncan had a reasonably good war, all things considered. At least until the fighter plane crash which resulted in the loss of both of his feet, and which turned him from being an important cog in the R.A.F. machinery to a mere bystander and user-up of precious resources.
After his recovery from the crash, with prosthetic feet more or less figured out, Alan goes through much personal turmoil as to what his new role in life should be, a position of choice made possible due to his family’s wealth, which makes it possible for him to wallow (his own term) in angst-ridden self-examination without the everyday concerns about actually earning a living.
***Having just re-read this post and realizing that I’ve discussed in some detail the main mystery of the plot, I’ve whited out the spoiler paragraphs. Mouse over the big white gap below to read, or just go ahead and pass over – your choice! Apologies. By the way, the suicide thing – it’s all there in Chapter One, so I’m leaving part that alone.
Alan’s brother Bill has not been so fortunate as Alan; he was killed in a hush-hush wartime operation involving underwater derring-do. Bill leaves behind his lover/potential fiancée, Janet Prentice, an Ordinance WREN who, due to a…(***potential spoiler section starts)… natural skill in marksmanship, has had a remarkable and disturbing experience, being directly responsible for the deaths of seven people who may or may not have been enemy combatants.
With the combined deaths of her lover, her father, and – final straw – Bill’s pet dog which he had bequeathed to her – the hitherto deeply pragmatic and competent Janet has a complete emotional breakdown, during which she comes to the conclusion that her killing of the seven alien airmen was a sin which could only be expiated by seven deaths affecting her personally, the final one being her own.
Yes, she commits suicide, in the spare bedroom of the Duncan family’s Australian manor house, in which she is living under an assumed name.
Which brings us to the very beginning of the story, as Alan walks in to that bedroom, and realizes that this seemingly anonymous dead girl is the key to his own desperate seeking for life-meaning after his personal wartime losses.
This is one of Shute’s “full circle” novels, in which he tosses us in at the ending, and then works us backwards through what brought his characters to that starting point. It’s a plot device which can get a little tiresome if encountered too often, but in this case it works very well indeed.
Recommended, emphatically, for Shute fans, and, speculatively, for those new to this author, who might appreciate a slightly simplistic but thought-provoking view of the effects of war on its participants, by a man who lived much of what he wrote about.
Those of you who’ve read this, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about Shute’s assertion that war is a desirable state for the young to truly “find themselves”. I thought it a troubling concept, but with a ring of truth. “Desirable” only for the survivors, of course!