Posts Tagged ‘Nevil Shute’

requiem-for-a-wren-reprint-society-1955-1956-nevil-shuteRequiem 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.

Portrait of our WREN Janet, from the first edition dust jacket illustration by Val Biro.

Portrait of our WREN Janet, from the first edition dust jacket illustration by Val Biro.

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!

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I’m getting back on the posting pony, after having been tumbled to the ground by recent events, and aren’t I lucky this morning, because look at this! – I found a draft post from mid-May that I never did publish. I think I was going to add a Bill Bryson (I’m a Stranger Here Myself) to the line-up, but I’m sure no one will mind giving my thoughts on Our Mr. Bryson a miss (short verdict: in general, I like his stuff quite a lot), because he’s hardly under-reviewed and I haven’t anything new and stunning to say about his earnestly (relentlessly?) humorous ramblings.

Quickie reviews only, I’m afraid, but operating on the premise that a little something is better than nothing, here we go.

pied piper nevil shutePied Piper by Nevil Shute ~ 1942. This edition: Heinemann, 1962. Hardcover. 303 pages.

My rating: 9/10

A ripping yarn, indeed, and typical of Nevil Shute at his best.

Elderly (70-ish) John Howard, not needed for war-related work due to his age, and mourning the loss of his pilot son in the early days of the Second World War, decides to take a quiet fishing trip to eastern France, despite the menacing activities of the German forces in other parts of Europe. Unwittingly caught out by the swiftness of the unstoppable German invasion, Howard finds himself escorting two young English children in an increasingly desperate attempt to return to England. His entourage increases child by child as he collects various waifs and strays, as well as a young French woman who has an unexpected connection to the Howard family.

The coast is reached, and transport across the Channel seems to be coming together nicely when the local Nazi commander intercepts Howard and accuses him of espionage – a charge which carries a brutal penalty…

A fast-moving story with a slightly unusual cast of characters. The children are mostly believable, and John Howard himself is the epitome of quiet heroism. The invading Nazis are brutish and brutal, in between their attempts at placating the locals by benevolent establishment of soup kitchens and the like; the English who are caught in the turmoil are universally likeable and high-minded; the French locals are mostly portrayed as a combination of bovinely stoic, and (paradoxically) boldly sly.

Pied Piper is rather obviously (and expectedly so given its time of writing) something of a fervent propaganda novel, celebrating as it does the sterling nature of the British Everyman in the face of the Teutonic War Machine, but with enough departure from the clichés here and there to keep it engaging. Nevil Shute brushes over some vital details as he keeps his story moving right along, but those he includes add clarity and verisimilitude to this gripping and very readable tale.

something wholesale eric newbySomething Wholesale by Eric Newby ~1962. This edition (revised 1970 and 1985): Picador, 1985. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-00-736751-1. 228 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Ever since a teaser in the early part of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush I have been deeply curious as to Eric Newby’s “time in the rag trade”, as he so facetiously terms his years as a apprentice of sorts in the family business, Lane and Newby Limited, a wholesale women’s fashion house situated in London. By the time Eric darkened its door in 1945, after his return to England after a traumatic wartime of special forces service, time on the run from capture, and prison camp incarceration (see Love and War in the Apennines/When the snow comes they will take you away), the once-thriving business was in the first stages of what would prove to be its death throes.

The rationing of cloth was still in effect for some years after the end of the war, and this created serious difficulties for Great Britain’s dress-making firms, but of more serious impact was the resurgence of the very competitive French fashion houses, in particular Dior, whose hyper-feminine New Look (incidentally requiring vast yardages to make up, putting the struggling English firms at a severe logistical disadvantage) was a jaw-dropping success on the 1947 haute couture scene.

As Eric becomes more and more enmeshed in the garment trade – quite literally, as one will learn from the anecdotes in Something Wholesale – he records with a keen eye to detail the absurdities of that arcane world, and the many eccentric characters he came up against, from flirtatious “outsize” models intent on playing under-the-table footsie with the boss’s son (Eric, of course), to various department store buyers, commercial travellers and contract seamstresses.

In general I enjoyed this memoir, though the humour is of the determined type and not particularly funny after a certain point – pseudonymous names such as Throttle and Fumble (a retailer of Lane and Newby’s output), and the Misses Axhead and Stallybrass being examples of the sort of heavy-handed fun which Eric Newby resorts to for much of the book.

But here and there the narrative strikes pure gold, and some bits are sarcastic gems of prose and really quite perfect. And though he refuses to be completely serious for much of the tale, Eric Newby’s ultimately loving depiction of his parents and their dedication to the firm is perhaps the most gentle and poignant aspect of this uneven memoir.

Lane and Newby went down for the third and final time in 1956, winding up its affairs after the death of Eric’s father, but Eric himself stayed employed in the garment business until 1963 – taking off for an occasional expedition during holidays and writing the odd book and magazine article here and there in his spare time – when he finally managed to find full-time employment in a career much more suited to his tale-telling aptitude, journalism.

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kindling nevil shute 001Kindling by Nevil Shute ~ 1938. Original British title: Ruined City. This American edition: Lancer, 1967. Paperback. 319 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I’m starting to fall out of the routine of posting, what with springtime’s long days and the utter luxury of being able to spend long hours out in the garden. The sabbatical year is going well, aside from the anticipated pinch of much less cash flow.

(For those of you who don’t know my back story, I generally operate a small specialty plant nursery and this year have shut up shop in order to refocus and take care of some outstanding personal farm and garden jobs which can only be properly tackled in the spring. I’m starting to think two years off might be even better, as there is no way I’ll get everything on The List finished this time round…)

Well, I’ve still been reading, though at a slower rate, and mostly in bed at night, so I notice I’ve been gravitating towards slighter novels, the kind one can finish off in an evening or two. No complicated sagas in the springtime! The brain is much too full of other stuff to make sense of anything too challenging.

Which makes Nevil Shute quite a good choice, as one can’t call books such as this last read, Kindling, at all complex. If anything, it was a bit too simplified, and I found myself occasionally annoyed at how briefly the author touched on some major plot developments, and how he introduced some promising characters and then dropped them cold, never to be seen again.

It is the mid-1930s, in England, and the long agony of the worldwide financial depression is grinding away at the status quo. It has even started affecting the very wealthy business class, who are, by and large, dealing fairly well with the money market difficulties, though those lower in the hierarchy are losing their grip.

Competently keeping his feet at the top of a shifting pile of lesser men, we have the successful, middle-aged merchant banker, Henry Warren, who deftly keeps in order a whole puppet show of various enterprises, handling staid English investors and dramatic Balkan politicians with absolutely level-headed aplomb. This involves frequent long nights in London, and many trips abroad, and Henry seems never to be home at the same time his wife is, what with the two of them leading fully separate lives and only meeting infrequently when their respective circles of activity brush against each other.

Serious problems are brewing, and not only on the home front, though things there have imploded with a sullen bang. Mrs. Warren has become romantically involved with a wealthy Arab sheik, and the gossip has surpassed the whisper stage. Henry is reluctantly forced to take notice, especially when he finds himself staying at the same French hotel as his wife and her lover. A divorce is the inevitable solution, after Henry’s ultimatum of a new sort of arrangement of reduced jet-setting and poshly-cushioned rural solitude for his wife is spiritedly rejected.

Henry sets his lawyers to work getting his divorce tidied up, and goes back to his wheeling and dealing, pausing only briefly to mull over the reasons behind the failure of his marriage. The major thing being, he concludes, that his wife’s financial independence has made it too easy for her to neglect the homemaking aspect of things. When a wife is dependent upon her husband financially, Henry muses, she has much more incentive to dedicate herself to her job, which is the home and family, while the husband’s half of the deal is to provide the money and the house.

He always felt helpless in his dealings with Elise. In most marriages, he thought, the economic tie must make things easier: the wife had her job for which she drew her pay; she could not lightly give it up. Both husband and wife then had to work, he in the office and she in the home. With Elise it was different. She had her own money – plenty of it; a dissolution of their marriage would mean no material loss to her, no unavoidable discomfort. She was not dependent on her job for her security, therefore she took it lightly…

But though he seems to recover quite quickly from the shock of the failure of his marriage, Henry Warren is riding for a fall. His overworked physique is about to let him down, and when it does, it is in quite an unexpected way. Henry ends up an incoherent patient in an overcrowded hospital in a depressed small city which has lost its only industry, that of a shipyard, some five years before. He is assumed to be an indigent wanderer, and, once he has recovered from abdominal surgery, he plays along with the charade, for he has become interested in how desperate the straits are of an entire community of unemployed men, and of how the progression of their loss of hope has affected them and their families.

If only one could bring back industry to the town, he muses…

What follows is a description of how Henry Warren manages to arrange financing to reopen the shipyard, which requires some intricate and not-quite-above-board dealings with the afore-mentioned Balkan politicians, and some at-home clever negotiations to bring some British investors into the deal.

But Henry has let his emotion in this case override his common sense, and has resorted, for the very first time in his financial career, to some shady practices which won’t stand up to investigation. And he has inadvertently made an enemy, who is in possession of a damning set of documents…

Of course there is a love interest, this time a properly womanly woman, the utter opposite of the ex-Mrs. Warren, who has departed the scene to live with her “black” paramour.

One of the sticky bits in this novel, even greater than the casual sexism, was the offhand racism exhibited throughout. The Arab lover is referred quite commonly as being “black”, and “a n*gger”, and Henry notes the “swarthiness” and the “olive texture” of Prince Ali Said’s skin, which “darkens to brown” – one would assume with a hidden blush? – when Henry lightly insults him. And the Jews in Henry’s circle get much the same treatment, though here and there one is given the nod as a “good man” despite his Jewishness and the associated stereotypes of appearance and behaviour this implies.

This aspect of Shute’s writing, even given its “era expectedness”, was a hurdle I had to crawl labouriously over, but once I made up my mind to go on, I found myself quite taken up in the story of Henry Warren’s new obsession, that of the rehabilitation of a town and its population. Henry puts the philanthropic desires of his heart before the sensible qualms of his brain, and in stepping out of bounds in a completely uncharacteristic way, makes himself an unlikely hero.

I mostly bought into it, and though the author’s philosophical soapbox was evident throughout, he told an engaging enough tale that I was held until it was all told out. Not much in the way of nuances here; we are told throughout exactly how we are expected to react and think, and I found myself meekly following Shute’s direction, though I gave myself a little shake when it was all over, to get myself tuned back in to the here-and-now.

I think “vintage” is an apt summation of the experience as a whole. The details of the financial planning are rather intriguing, being based on Nevil Shute’s own involvement in establishing a pre-war aircraft factory, which was, after many set-backs, successful.

One final note, and this on the cover. The story is set in the 1930s, and there are no passionate embraces with lightly clad women within. Henry Warren’s post-marital love affair is carried out with the strictest decorum, and though he does associate with an exotic Corsican dancer during some of his Balkan scheming, that relationship is apparently quite platonic. So the cover art is mostly imaginary, and obviously designed to catch the eye of the jaded businessman, who is (I suspect) the intended audience for Shute’s masculine romances.

 

 

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