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.