Nevil Shute – inspirational reading for Easter 2022?
Nevil Shute (1899-1960) was once a best-selling author, but these days any fans who devoured his novels when young – and who still reach for their favourites in certain moods – are likely to be from the older generation.
Some Nevil Shute novels may feel dated, but there are others which speak as strongly today as they did when first published. Younger readers may only be familiar with A Town Like Alice, an enthralling story combining romance with the horrors of the second world war in the Far East. Nevil Shute’s novels often contain strong female characters, but Jean Paget is his most inspirational for her selfless courage and enterprise. It’s no surprise A Town Like Alice remains Nevil Shute’s best-loved and most popular novel.
Nevil Shute was an aeronautical engineer and pilot, and many of his books have an aviation or engineering backdrop. Not exactly tempting if you aren’t particularly interested in these areas and switch off when it comes to technical talk about flying and aeroplanes. But what’s surprising is that you become so gripped by Nevil Shute’s incredible story-telling and knack of creating instant empathy with his characters that what seems alien and uncongenial territory actually becomes quite interesting!
Devotees will have their own favourites, but there are four Nevil Shute novels I have found especially unforgettable. Pied Piper, published in 1942, is one of them. John Howard, a retired country solicitor, dealing with his own grief, tries to escape from France in 1940 when it’s invaded by the Germans, looking after a collection of children he gathers up along the way.
There’s no overblown heroism. You might think it an almost prosaic account of the journey and the dangers faced, but small details and incidents concerning the children bring Howard’s journey across France vividly to life. He demonstrates those qualities typical of characters in Nevil Shute’s novels – a sense of duty, doing what needs to be done whatever the risks, facing difficulties and discomfort with calm and patience. An unassuming old man doing something remarkable.
The Chequer Board, published in 1947, is also a story of someone outwardly very ordinary – a terminally-ill man with a less than admirable past determined to make something of himself in the time left to him. He sets out to discover what happened to the three men, each of them with messed-up lives, whom he met in a hospital ward back in 1943. It’s a quest set against the racist and prejudiced attitudes about skin colour and nationality of that time – and we see how friendship can overcome the barriers human beings erect against each other.
These are themes further developed in Round the Bend, published in 1951, the novel that Nevil Shute considered to be his best. The narrator Tom Cutter, a pilot and entrepreneur, starts up an air freight business transporting goods across the Middle East and Far East, employing the Eurasian Connie Shak Lin. Connie is not only a first class engineer but a spiritual leader. He transforms the attitudes of the other workers with his teaching that doing good work with honesty and responsibility is the way to serve God.
This novel might be seen as being about a spirituality that underlies and unites different religions. God is there for everyone. Significantly, when Tom and Connie were boys and working together for an air circus that travelled all over the British Isles, Connie ‘just went to any old church there was. He went to the nearest, whether it was Anglican or Methodist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic. He went to a synagogue one time, at Wolverhampton. He collected churches, like another boy might collect cigarette cards or matchbox covers. The gem of his collection was at Woking, where he found a mosque to go to.’ The novel’s ending asks a question that the narrator cannot answer but goes on haunting his mind – and that of the reader.
Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach sears itself into the mind in another way. Radiation is drifting inexorably towards the southern hemisphere, after a nuclear war has destroyed the rest of the world. Soon radiation sickness will kill the earth’s last remaining people still alive in Australia. The novel looks with a matter of fact gaze at the way individuals choose to spend the final months of their lives – and how they will end them. A young couple with a baby make plans to grow trees and vegetables in their garden that they will never see. An American naval officer in Australia with his ship buys presents for his wife and children, as if unable to accept in part of his mind that they are dead.
On the Beach is terrifying and moving all at once. In this and all his novels, Nevil Shute gives us characters who find the courage and integrity to stand up for what matters. They can help and inspire us in our modern world – how to live and do our best wherever we are, in the time that remains to us.