In praise of Nevil Shute
The great thing is to go forth and get hold of the books of this very great middle to low brow writer of adventure romances, and read them. If this piece delays you in doing so, then ignore it. If it is what may push you into the Shute fan club, then please read on…I write this not having read On the Beach. Indeed, I came late to A Town Like Alice, which I acknowledge to be one of his very best. By the quirk of my nature, I went off-road into minor Shute territory before I looked at his most famous books – and found great riches.
Shute books are recognisable, and their most striking feature is the width and warmth of his sympathies which are in contrast to his passion for engineering detail. (It is a seeming contrast of course: stresses and numbers are not antithetical to romance.) Often, an unlikely hero – a middle-aged man, older – is stretched well beyond his comfort zone as he becomes involved in an adventure. Often, heroes and heroines are scuppered – but also redeemed – not so much by the depth of their feeling as by their reluctance to press their case noisily. These are novels which resonate by virtue of their mid-20th Century virtues. There is quite often (Requiem For a Wren) an unrequited love, or a love which is almost denied its destiny (A Town Like Alice). The Second World War almost always looms very large, often in fascinating technical detail, often involving ships or planes. The Far East often features (A Town Like Alice), sometimes with an overt spiritual dimension (The Chequer Board). Shute is thoroughly at home with the transcendental: it is as the very core of a brutal war story (Most Secret).
Shute can sometimes be the tiniest bit clunky (Ruined City). The modern reader under 50 will find much of his tone a matter of curiosity, whilst older readers will hear their parents’ voices echoing as they turn these pages. I am sure, though, that Shute commands attention well beyond being educational or nostalgic.