Nevil Shute – 2 books, neither brilliant.

I have to be slightly careful what I write here, because I know Nevil Shute has an incredibly protective following.  I can sort of understand why.  He has an interesting background, an engineer turned novelist, he emigrated to Australia in 1950 and wrote many of his popular books about his new home.  He wrote lots of books in the latter part of his life and several have been adapted into films.  I’ve read two of his books this year, both re-reads.  Both slightly disappointing if I’m honest, hopefully I’ll be able to explain why they were a bit of a let down.

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I wasn’t even  a teenager when Tenko was on the TV.  I was absolutely captivated by this story of women in a prison camp in Malaysia during the second world war.  They were women who had never needed to worry about their own safety and security before the war and now they grouped together for their own survival.  While I was a student I spent a summer travelling in Malaysia and began to appreciate the environment these women had to live in.

 A Town Like Alice tells a similar story.  Jean Paget in living in Malaysia when World War Two breaks out.  When the Japanese invade Singapore and Malaysia a group of women including Jean and a gaggle of children are separated from other prisoners and made to march across the peninsular in search of a camp to take them.  It is a relentless, hot walk with many falling foul to illness and fatigue.  They never do find a camp, but during their search Jean makes friends with an Australian POW, Joe Harman, who drives trucks for the Japanese and steals chickens for the women and children.  This has dire consequences.   After the war Jean comes into an inheritance and returns to Malaysia to help the villagers who sheltered the women.  She finds out Joe’s fate was different to what she assumed and goes to Alice Springs to experience the town he told her about during the war.  The film adaptation starring Virginia Mckenna and Peter Finch ends at this point.  Perfect.  It tells a story of a man and women who find each other in a time of turmoil.

The problem is, the book doesn’t end there.  It goes on and on telling Jean’s story in Australia as she uses her inheritance to bring life to a backwater town in an attempt to make it into another Alice Springs.  The only part of this section that interested me was the vastness of the outback cattle farms and how such a thing is managed.

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On the Beach has an interesting theme and one which occupied the thoughts of many during the 50s and beyond. Before the book starts, the world has suffered a nuclear war.  Australia took no part in it, but radiation is slowly drifting south.  Australians know they have about six months until the deadly air reaches them.  The population elsewhere on the planet has been wiped out.  An American nuclear submarine found its way to Melbourne, it’s captain Dwight Towers being one of the last remaining US naval officers on the planet.  He meets Moira through the Australian liaison officer and his wife.  Once it is established there is no hope for the human race, the characters fill their remaining time living life as though nothing is wrong.

This is my main issue with On the Beach.  It has such a grand theme – the characters know the end is coming, they have a finite amount of time left, yet they concern themselves with banalities like choosing an electric mower or planning a vegetable patch.  There is a five page description of a car race.  It just felt so underwhelming.  There’s no panic, there is a lot of fustiness and stiff upper lip.  The old-fashioned language is charming, if a little irritatingly repetitive.   I suppose I felt that Shute had an ideal opportunity to discuss concepts about human mortality and the futility of all activity when we know our lives will ultimately come to an end.  It was a very polite, middle class take on the end of the world and just didn’t feel quite right to me.  I discussed this with a few friends who had also read it, they all loved the book and felt I was being a bit harsh.  They were heartbroken by the ending, which is incredibly poignant and sad as are other moments in the book, but the delivery left me a bit cold.

My overall feeling having now read these two books is that Shute was a writer with great ideas, but an unsophisticated and clunky writing style.  A great editor may have done wonders with his texts, but we’ll never know.

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8 thoughts on “Nevil Shute – 2 books, neither brilliant.”

  1. It’s easy to criticize Nevil Shute. As a prose stylist, he’s negligible, to put it kindly. Many of his characters are far from nuanced, and when he wished to convey an American identity it sufficed his purpose for a line of dialogue to begin “Say…” His politics were not merely conservative but downright royalist, and he betrays some easy unconscious bigotries typical of his era and class even when he’s attempting to be broadminded (in *Trustee from the Toolroom*: “He’s a Jew. And a very good one”). He was still very popular in the fifties, when I was growing up, but has been nearly forgotten, On the Beach apart, today.

    But dammit, for all these deficits he was a master storyteller. As someone put it in this connection years ago, no one gets you from beginning to middle to end the way Nevil does. Look past the hamfisted style and the unconscious assumptions of privilege masquerading as enlightened tolerance. He wrote at least half a dozen tales that are worth following to the end notwithstanding faults we wouldn’t put up with from a lesser yarn spinner. “Trustee from the Toolroom” is a splendid reading experience, and so is the divinely (I deploy the term deliberately) loopy “Round the Bend,” in which an ethically-based approach to aircraft maintenance ignites a mass religious movement from Bahrain to Bali in the years following World War II. Sneer at the style if you’re inclined, but remain to marvel at the story. You won’t regret it.

  2. I love, love, love Nevil Shute but I totally understand your point of view. His prose is totally clunky but after a while I ended up loving it. It is interesting because the ordinariness that you didn’t appreciate in OTB and the second half of ATLA is kind of a hallmark of all his books. Normal people under great stress acting really efficient, almost robot like, albeit with a nod to romance. Just wait till you come across some of his racist language. Sometimes you have to overlook a lot to enjoy NS.

  3. Many years ago I devoured all Shute’s novels, I have been slightly wary of re-reading them – wondering if they’d seem horribly dated, but I couldn’t resist buying a couple of the Vintage reprints. I have Pied Piper and On the Beach in the TBR again…

  4. I have to say I agree with your friends :) I loved On the Beach. I remember reading it years ago and just that sense of futility and acceptance intertwined with no overwhelming panic and hysteria that abounds in so many “end of the world” novels was fantastic. I saw the movie A Town Called Alice but have never read the book so i can’t really comment on that. I do think that On the Beach suffers now because there is just so much post-apocalyptic literature available and most of that tends towards more of the “thriller/action/adventure” type, so that a quiet book like this gets lost in the shuffle.

  5. I’ve read only three of his novels – the two you mention and ‘No Highway’ which was the stronger of them for me. But this was decades ago and I suspect I wouldn’t find it as disturbing now

  6. Maybe these are the kind of novels that become memorable movies? I’d heard of these, but didn’t know what they were about. I’ve never read any Nevil Shute.

  7. “Shute was a writer with great ideas, but an unsophisticated and clunky writing style.” I think that’s exactly write. I admit I’ve only read On the Beach, and it has some moments that stick with me (including that race, where if I recall correctly they take no care as to their safety in order to go faster, since they’re all going to die anyway it doesn’t matter). It’s a drier read than the concept suggests though.

    The best part of it is the submarine trip to investigate a radio signal. It might have worked better as a short story though.

    1. Hi Max, the race scene is the only moment where he tries to make something of the futility of living on, but there was no finesse, the description centred on the mechanics of the race and cars rather than how the drivers’ motivations.
      I’d agree, the most gripping part was the trip in the submarine, with the poignant moment of the seaman who jumps ship at his home port.

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