Thursday, April 23, 2015

Rediscovering Nevil Shute

A few months ago I was browsing through the stacks at my local library when I came upon several books by author Nevil Shute.  I remembered Shute from many years ago as the author of On the Beach, an Armageddon-themed story of worldwide nuclear destruction.  On the Beach was subsequently made into a film with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.  For a long time, this frightening novel and movie was all I knew about Nevil Shute.  And then a few years later, my parents loaned me a book entitled In the Wet, a story about the Australian outback during the "wet" season that dealt with the mystical-religious theme of reincarnation.  Wow, I thought.  This guy Shute digs into a lot of different and interesting subjects.  I was intrigued, yet somehow got distracted by other writers exploring themes in the current mainstream. Now, at my library many years later, I am catching up with Shute's other books, with themes ranging from those dealing with bridging social barriers and race, to characters surviving life-threatening episodes to build productive lives for themselves and others. 

Shute, whose full name was Nevil Shute Norway, was an aeronautical engineer who at one time formed his own aircraft construction company and worked on dirigibles before World War II.  A number of his novels contain aviation and engineering as backdrops (An Old Captivity, Trustee from the Toolroom).  Shute's books offer a "comfortable" read, written in an easy, storytelling style, sometimes with a first person narrator—a character sitting with someone over a drink recalling a life-changing episode he or she has experienced, or describing an incident involving someone they know.  For instance, A Town Like Alice explores the travails of a woman and man caught in the Japanese occupation of Malaysia, how they survive, and ultimately reunite in the small Australian town of Alice Springs.  Pied Piper tells the story of an old man who rescues seven children from German-occupied France and brings them to England and America.  The Far Country describes a young woman who is frustrated with post-war socialist England and travels to Australia to seek a better life.   I could go on and list his other works, but I won't.  Shute wrote a total of 24 novels and novellas in his lifetime.  I haven't read them all, but those I have have been very engrossing. 

I know there are many current works that offer more compelling stories than those of a writer who died over fifty years ago.  But as we know, literary themes never really change.  Characters always find themselves in conflict with each other, with society, with the elements, government or religion.  If this weren't the case, Charles Dickens wouldn't still be as popular as he is today.  Nevil Shute is one of those subtle perveyors of social/cultural issues who is able to wrap his themes in a good story.  So, if you haven't discovered him already, visit your library or book store and pick out one of his titles.  You may like what you find.

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