13 November 2009

Book Review: Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

Pied Piper
Nevil Shute

For those of you who have never read a book by Nevil Shute, now is the time. No special anniversary that I know of, it’s just that you are missing out on a really great storyteller. I attach some qualifications to this recommendation, but nothing that even comes close to diminishing my enthusiasm for his work. Some of Shute’s novels use some appallingly dated racist language, but I chalk that up to the era in which they were written, and I have my fingers crossed that the man himself wasn’t actually racist. There is also a certain corniness to some of Shute’s dialog. It sometimes sounds like it comes straight from one of those fast talking, black and white films from the 1940s. And his novels tend to be the kind where if every line doesn’t move the plot forward, your foreshadowing alarm should go off. Although there is usually a romance of some kind that is part of the mix, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that his books are shot full of testosterone-laden adventures. But interesting and suspenseful enough to enthrall even someone like me who likes a lot of “old lady” books.

Pied Piper is the story of John Howard, a retired Englishman who is on holiday in France at the outbreak of World War II. Reluctantly agreeing to take two small English children back to England with him, Howard ends up finding it increasingly difficult to make his way home with the Nazis rolling into France with much more speed than anyone anticipated. During the journey home Howard comes across five more children that need his help escaping France. Since the story unfurls as a flashback, I won’t be giving anything away by mentioning that Howard makes it back to safety. I won’t say whether or not his young charges were as lucky--but have you ever seen a movie with a child character whose stupidity ends up getting folks in trouble? ‘Nuff said about that. The fact that book was published in 1942, long before the end of the war, gives one a different perspective on the tale as well. With the war not yet won, personal heroism (and more than a tinge of Commonwealthism/nationalism) have to take the place of a larger WWII victory narrative.

There is always enough non-fiction in a Shute novel that most of them have me racing to the Internet or some reference material to investigate further some aspect of the story. Pied Piper is no exception. As I made my way through this page turner, I pulled out my big map of France to follow Howard’s progress, which made the story all the more exciting.

Shute was born in England in 1899, worked as an aeronautical engineer, and, upset over the direction England was headed, emigrated to Australia with his family in 1950 and died in 1960. Although I have enjoyed other Nevil Shute novels, it was the recent reissue of four of his books in these great Vintage Classics’ covers (available in the UK) that made me pick up Pied Piper. Vintage has other Shute titles available without the cool covers, but I think many of his 23 novels are out of print. But they can be fun quarry while book hunting at garage sales, charity shops, and secondhand bookstores.

Other Shute books I have read include:

On the Beach (1957)
This was the first Shute I ever read. I was in high school and sobbed like a baby for the last 30 pages. I could barely read it through the tears. Atomic war has wreaked havoc on the northern hemisphere. Shute chronicles life in Melbourne as they wait for the radioactive fallout to reach them. Also made into a good movie with the young (and very handsome) Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame.

Times Square at Night, c. 1955* by Bedrich Grunzweig
(*I love the image on this postcard and the fact that On the Beach is on the marquee makes it even more special to me. But I just realized that the estimated date of the photograph on the card is wrong. On the Beach was published in 1957, and the film came out in 1959, so it couldn't date from '55.)

In the Wet (1953)
This is probably my favorite Shute because of the subject matter. Another “flashback” novel (this time to 1980!), it tells the story of a biracial Australian airman who finds himself in very interesting circumstances. As England trends towards socialism the royal family face the possibility of exile. But the Commonwealth comes to the rescue! The Australians and Canadians agree to build and operate a two-craft fleet of super cool De Havilland jets, for the sole use of the royals. The fleet is soon put into use to shuttle the Queen and her consort to various Commonwealth countries around the world as they escape from England until things settle down a bit. I loved this book because of the hardware component (I am a sucker for airplanes) but also for its Royal fantasy element—in the same way I liked Alan Bennett’s alternate universe in The Uncommon Reader.

Ordeal (1938 – or What Happened to the Corbetts in the UK):
Also hugely enjoyable. How one family survives when Southampton is bombed and sickness and disease are causing all kinds of shortages and quarantines. The Corbetts live on their little sailboat, skirting the coast of England trying to stay outside the quarantined areas and survive.

A Town Like Alice (1950):
Aside from Pied Piper, this was the most recent Shute I have read. I enjoyed it, but it isn’t one of my favorites even though it is one of Shute’s most popular. A couple meets while prisoners of the Japanese in Southeast Asia during World War II. They meet later in Australia where the heroine is determined to create a successful community in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Pastoral (1944):
I enjoyed this one but I don’t remember too much about it. Life and love in and around an aerodrome in southern England during World War II.

Nancy Pearl, in More Book Lust (a follow-up to the much more fantastic Book Lust) says that Nevil Shute is "too good to miss". And she is right.
  

25 comments:

  1. This was definitely one of my favorites of the books I've read this year. I'll definitely be looking to read some more Shute.

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  2. I've never heard of Neil Shute though I've heard of a Town like Alice. Pied Piper sounds riveting! I'll definitely look for it on my next bookstore visit. Thanks for the review.

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  3. Megan: If you liked this one, you will definitely like others.

    Mrs. B: I forget for the moment what country you are in, but here in the US I tend to find old hardbacks or mass market editions. But even then they are few and far between.

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  4. I must, must, must give Shute a chance. The new Vintage books look fabulous but there is a series from the 1970s that I am hankering after and saw a while back, if I had known that they wouldall be as good as you say i would have gotten On The Beach instantly!

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  5. Hi, Thomas! I've never read Shute, and I think that his novels would be perfect when I take on non-contemporary novels next year! Thanks for bringing this author to your readers' attention.

    I think though that it would be very hard to find Shute's novels here in Manila.

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  6. I love the premise to this! I have the new edition of A Town Like Alice lined up and been told that I must read Requiem for a Wren.

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  7. Simon S: Of course when I was 16 and read On the Beach it was the height of the Cold War and the seemingly constant threat of nuclear war with the Soviets. That may have something to do with the degree of my emotional response.

    Peter: The Book Despository has them and they do free shipping anywhere in the world.

    Paperback Reader: I have Requiem of a Wren in my TBR. I don't want to read it too soon because then I am out of Shute until I find more.

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  8. Did you know that the entirety of Nevil Shute’s backlist is available from Random House, printed on demand?

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  9. Paperback Reader: That is a dangerous piece of information for me to have...

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  10. It was great to see that others are discovering the "Prince Of
    Storytellers. There many highly devoted nay obsessed "Shutists"
    around the world and to learn more about this extraordinary novelist there is a wonderful Nevil Shute Foundation website at
    http://www.nevilshute.org
    containing full details and reviews of his 24 novels and autobiography. Whilst there you should look down the menu for the link to an active Google Group
    Discussion Board
    John Fowles in NJ USA

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  11. I read a Town Like Alice- simply because my mother owned a copy and I was curious after always seeing it on her shelf. I never thought of seeking out more of this author's works- I definitely will now!

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  12. Shute is definitely underrated - I wrote about him a little while ago, and glad that you are promoting him too. The new Vintage editions are lovely

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  13. Definitely underrated! This is such a good read - probably my favourite Shute or at least the most frequently read. I usually read it in tandem with two children's books - The Silver Sword and The Chalet School in Exile. Equally moving in their different ways!

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  14. John: Thanks for the information and the link. I have been there many times.

    Jeane: Although A Town Like Alice is indicative of Shute's style, subject-wise it wasn't my favorite. Others were more interesting to me.

    Verity: I remember your post about Shute. I think it may have been the impetus for me to order the four Vintage Classic editions.

    Donna: I agree, definitely underrated.

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  15. It is so great to see a review of a Nevil Shute book! My first exposure to Nevil Shute's works was a TV movie adaptation of Pied Piper called "Crossing to Freedom." Peter O'Toole played John Howard. Years later, I read the book but I don't remember much so I'm probably due for a re-read.

    I was affected by reading On the Beach - this would have been in the late 1990's. It was the book that started my affinity for post-apocalyptic fiction.

    I read A Town Like Alice and remember liking it, especially the first half that occurs during World War II.

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  16. A good stopping point: If you like post apocolyptic ficion you should try Shute's Ordeal (UK title: What Happended to the Cobbets). It isn't the end of the world, but you get similar survival themes that are quite interesting.

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  17. I've never read Mr. Shute. I think I'll give Pied Piper a try. I was a fan of the film version of On The Beach which I saw on the afternoon movie back in the 70's, when I was a kid. "Brother, There is Still Time," became kind of a catch phrase among my middle school friends for a while.

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  18. CB: Thanks for stopping by. I think he is definitely worth checking out. Because if you like him, you will have a whole slew of great novels to read.

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  19. Oh gosh, I thought there was no one else who still read him! I am so very happy you wrote about him, and that your post may lead new readers to his work. I love Nevil Shute. I used to subscribe to a newsletter from a society. I first heard of him through the PBS version of A Town Like Alice. Since then I've read the book and found it fascinating. I love the way of communicating. I also read Ordeal and thought it was very, very good. I loved Pastoral. Here is what I wrote in my journal 7 years ago to help you remember it:

    " Pastoral by Nevil Shute 1944
    This is the fourth book I have read by Nevil Shute, and I think he is such a good writer. This one is the story of a 22 year old war pilot and a 21 year old RAF signal worker at an airbase in England during WW II. They go out three times, and he asks her to marry him. She says she doesn't feel strongly enough about him and doesn't plan to marry anyone until she is older. He becomes morose, feels like a fool, and
    messes up a bombing mission. She hears that he has been feeling badly,
    and they talk. He asks for a month of her company because he feels that
    there can be a bond between them. She agrees to give him that month, but will not guarantee anything beyond. His mood changes. They are happy. He goes on a mission, and barely makes it back- this time through no fault of his own. She realizes she truly loves him, and they get married. Great story, great writing. I like to read a book about a
    period of time, like WW II, that was really written then. It is so much more realistic than a modern book that tries to look back at another time. This book may seem old-fashioned, but I bet this was real life for many of those in the service. People married after barely knowing each other. Sometimes it worked out, and other times it didn't."

    Trustee from the Toolroom is one of my favorites. I think I've read it three times. The Atlantic Monthly wrote:
    "Trustee From The Toolroom is that rarity in our time, a happy book about a
    decent and resourceful guy" - still a rarity!

    I liked Beyond the Black Stump as well. In the newsletter I mentioned, someone wrote once:

    "Why do we all continue to read Nevil Shute and most of us over and over again? A driving force is a shared belief in the moral principles that shine through the pages of his books. A shared belief in the decency and goodness of people generally. A dedication to the value of work as shown through his pages. But most of all, the love of his characters."

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  20. Nan: I am glad you are a Shute fan as well. And thank you for the Pastoral recap. Nice to be reaquainted with the plot.

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  21. I'm so glad you've brought up Nevil Shute and reminded me of him. I've only read A Town Like Alice and would really like to read his other work. Perhaps I will order with TBD (my favorite place), but good news; Amazon has a few of the Vintage editions listed as being published in 2010!

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  22. Tara: I just worry that US editions won't have the same cool covers. I know UK Penguins tend to be better than the US versions. We will see if Vintage keeps the cool covers.

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  23. Ooh, I want to read this and On The Beach now. You know if I hadn't read A Town Like Alice for a book group I'd probably never have thought to have read any Shute but I've definitly been bitten by the bug.

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  24. I agree with Megan. This is indeed one of the best book I'v read. I love the book because it never have any boring or unnecessary scenes, and it is very well written. This book should be more popular.

    This is my first book of Shute, and I will try to read more of Shute in the future.

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  25. Darn! I wish I had gotten a copy of 'Pied Piper' as well. This sounds so amazing. Flashback narrative must have been Shute's thing. He was quite good at it in 'Alice' although there some inconsistencies. Having read Alice first, I know he wasn't a racist because he showed such intelligent and open insight into cultural differences which was one aspect that really impressed me. I always thought Shute lived in Australia much longer than the 10 years. This was a surprise.

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