In the Wet by Nevil Shute (1953)

Review by Jane V:

As far as I can remember this is the first Nevil Shute novel I have read.

Once the reader has got over the ‘write a piece for the Parish mag about your recent amazing trip’ style (well, the narrator is a vicar from the home counties) (s)he is led into a believable primitive Australian outback of pre WW2 days.

The scene is this: a disreputable old codger of the outback is dying of drink, dissipation and peritonitis in a miserable hut several hours ride on a horse-drawn cart through croc teeming flood waters.  The nursing sister (or is she is a nun?) from the local settlement, and the circuit minister battle through the elements to his aid, guided by the old Chinaman in whose hut the dying man lives.  The clergyman is suffering from a recurring bout of malaria and is none too well himself.  Circled on the higher ground round the hut are gathered cows, wild pigs and kangaroos.  They seem to be watching and waiting.  Aha! the reader thinks.  Here comes some mysticism . . . but this doesn’t materialise.

There is nothing to be done but to hold the old man’s hand and pray.  Luckily the one of two bags saved when the cart plunged into a deep pool is the clergyman’s complete with prayer book and everything needed for the last sacrament.  The nurse/nun’s bag with its medical contents was lost in the waters.  But the old man and his house mate are big opium smokers so pain relief is on hand.  The dying man is delirious; the clergyman not much better.  The sister is grabbing a nap.  The dying man mutters:

 “I got sent to Boscombe Down after the war.  And then I got sent to White Waltham.  I met her at the Palace.”

(Clergyman/narrator) “In my fever I asked him, ‘What Palace?”

“Buckingham Palace,” he said.  “Where the Queen lives, cobber.”

I sat there holding his hand, thinking that presently Sister Finlay would wake up and hear what I could not, that he was talking, and she would do something to relieve me.  In the meantime, I could sink into the daze, and we could go on talking without speaking; it was easier that way.”  [p 47]

So . . . thinks the alert reader.  We are not in pre-WW2 Australia.  If this is the man’s past he is rambling about, it must be long past the 1940s.  We turn the page.  The narration slips from first person (clergyman) to third person (dying man).  Almost imperceptibly.  Mid paragraph.  I thought I had turned over several pages, or missed a chapter, but no.  The reader is now hearing the back story of the dying man’s youth in England after the second world war, seconded from the Australian air force.  And here follows chapter upon chapter of details about flying, sailing, British politics compared (unfavourably) with Oz politics (where a worthy individual, as a reward for his or her worthiness, is awarded extra votes in elections.  (Really??)  England seems to be suffering badly from the effects of war from which she seems unable to raise herself.  The political scene lurches to the far left.  Elizabeth 2 is on the throne, and on the coins looking middle aged.  The year 1985 on the coinage is mentioned.  So this is not the 1950s?  And All is Not Well With The State of The Nation.

Out of the reader’s confusion emerges a thought that this book is, perhaps, an attempt made in the 1950s at a prophetic novel.  Because we know that Britain began to boom in the 60s this in confusing.  Ploughing on through the life of the dying man, we learn that he met eminent people; became the captain of the Queen’s Flight flying a plane donated by the Australians because Britain could no longer afford to buy and run one; that he met a girl who was a secretary in the palace.  She is a ‘jolly good type’ and not much like a 1980s girl. They fall for one another.

I skipped through the middle section (loads more flying, politics and sailing) to find out how the relationship between this man and this girl developed.  Mostly through sailing!  And old Blighty has gone republican!  The Queen is at risk.  She is smuggled away to Oz with the Australian captain at the controls.  A suspected bomb is found on board.  They manage to ditch it.  They make it to Australia.  Britain is in turmoil.  But the captain still has his duties.  He passes some pleasant days with his love Rosemary, the girl who types (no computers) for the Queen.  He stays in readiness to fly wherever the Royal family wishes; a flight to Kenya to bring Princess Anne to Oz is on the cards.  Rosemary is overworked.  He sees her to sleep with milk and biscuits and she murmurs, ‘Dear Nigger’ (his unfortunate nick-name). ‘Don’t be away long.’  Oh, yes!  And ‘the dying man’ is a quadroon, that is an Australian who is a quarter aborigine.

And then we drift back into the dying man’s subconscious.  Rosemary is receding.  ‘She could not come to him for thirty years or more.  Only the animals had come, standing outside in the rain among the floods to watch him die.’  We are back in the outback, in the wet season, and a broken old man is dying in squalor.

This novel is like a sandwich in which the bread is more interesting than the filling.

I had never read a Nevil Shute before and, even though it is wrong to judge an author on one title alone, I probably never will again.

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10 thoughts on “In the Wet by Nevil Shute (1953)

  1. Pingback: Nevil Shute (1899-1960) | Reading 1900-1950

  2. What a shame you did not read the whole book. Always check the publication details to see when it was written, to give you a start date from which to calculate any shift in time. What Shute was prophesying was an England after over 40 years of continuous Labour Government. Like it or not, many people emigrated from Britain in the years after WW2 to get away from that government. Shute predicted that the Prime Minister in his future state would represent a Cardiff constituency (cf Jim Callaghan!). And some of his other predictions were not so far off the mark. Royal travel is no longer on the lavish scale that it was 60 years ago. At the time Shute was writing, most Australians were fairly recent British ex-pats, and had a great affection for the mother country, which Shute expected would continue. In fact, even today, press reports seem to indicate that the Royal family is more respected in the Commonwealth countries than in Britain.
    As for his other work, Shute’s style of narrative is very deceptive. It can be construed as very simple. He does not develop complex characters. He just writes a good story. His later books do tend to promote Australia as the promised land, and history has tended to agree with him. He tends to write from experience; maybe this is a good thing. Certainly, if you want a picture of what the middle-class English were like during the period he was active, you could do worse.
    One of his lesser known works is “What happened to the Corbetts” (1939) in which he applied his knowledge of aircraft development to hypothesise what would happen to a large town if an enemy took to mass-bombing. What would happen if the gas mains were damaged? What would happen to the water supplies if the mains were destroyed? The outcome of serious damage to the sewage pipes. No other novelist had tackled this subject, and if there were any official guides, they had not been written in such readable fashion. The result was that his book became official required reading for the emergency services, Civil Defence etc to prepare them for the reality that was soon to overtake them.
    I believe Shute is one of the forgotten authors of his generation. I hope he will be re-discovered. In the meantime, if you want to frighten yourself to death, next time a Middle East crisis arises, read “On The Beach”

    • Thanks David – always good to get another view! I am finishing The Far Country and am thinking about Spring’s technique, and I agree that it appears simple. In the reading group those of us who had enjoyed our novels thought that though the characters were not complex, they were developed in just enough detail to engage the reader and carry the story. There seemed to be theme of ordinary people doing extraordinary things; this seemed particularly to be a consequence of the wartime and post-war period when people’s lives were changed so fundamentally by global events.

      We don’t have ‘What Happened to the Corbetts’ in the collection. A pity, as it sounds fascinating.

  3. What an absolutely bizarre-sounding book! I have never read Shute either and I’m not sure if I want to after this!! Will wait to hear what others of his books are like!

  4. Nevil Shute is on my list of ‘authors I am definitely going to read’. I have all his books in first editions, which I bought for my husband, who was a great Shute admirer and member of the Nevil Shute Society. I think this connection is perhaps putting me off the promised read. You can see a video he put together about Round the Bend here

    I’ve read The Pied Piper, which is an excellent story about getting refugee children out of Europe, and the very sad Requiem for a Wren. I’ve also seen the latter dramatised near Beaulieu, right where some of the events took place. I don’t think Shute should be dismissed by fans of middlebrow writing.

    • Thanks for commenting, Barbara. I do agree that Shute should not be dismissed. I finished reading The Far Country today, and found it an enjoyable and interesting read. I’ll try and get my review written today.

  5. I read ON THE BEACH as a young man, and only now, in my early 90s have I discovered Nevil Shute’s other novels, IN THE WET being my third one read. My reaction to IN THE WET is conditioned by an experience other readers have not had. I myself had a prophecy dream just as Stevie did in the novel. It was of course not on a grandiose scale requiring chapters to relate. I had an extraordinarily vivid dream of rescuing a frog in my swimming pool. Two days later I did rescue the frog in exactly the same way as it happened in the dream. It was only as I was setting the frog down on the patio with my pool skimmer that I realized I had been reenacting the dream of two nights before. Others have had dreams of events that actually happened later in real time as well. Nevil Shute’s use of one as a literary device is not as “mystical” or far out as one might think.

    I was a bit put off with David’s Nigger nickname and Nevil’s right-wing bias towards liberals but I’ll just say two things. First, I am impressed with the number of reviewers who REREAD his works and second, the fact that with each novel I have read–even if and when I was critical of some element–I have put the book down with a deep satisfaction of time very well spent.

    I am eager to read his next one and….I am going to re-read ON THE BEACH.

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