This novel exerted a curious, oblique charm. Curious because I found myself consistently interested despite the story being so flatly told.
Shute does not have an attractive writing style and one of the oddities of construction is apparent on the opening page. He tells us all about Tim Archer, a farm worker on a sheep station in rural Victoria, Australia. We learn rather a lot about Tim’s hopes and dreams, and the technicalities of working on a sheep station. I was nicely interested, and assumed that Tim Archer would be a central character – but no! Within a few pages he becomes entirely peripheral and remains so for the rest of the novel. Odd.
The novel is set in 1950 and moves between England and Australia. Middle-aged Australians Jack and Jane Dorman are enjoying wealth for the first time in their lives because the price of wool is so high. After 30 years in Australia, Jane Dorman has kept in touch with one relative ‘back home’ in England, her elderly Aunt Ethel.
The portrait of Aunt Ethel is very well drawn. After a busy life as a civil servant’s wife in India, she is widowed and living alone in austerity England. Her pension is stopped, rationing is ‘so troublesome’ and ‘now with this horrible Health Service’ until eventually all she is eating is the parcels of dried fruit that her niece Jane sends from Australia.
Too proud to ask for help, Aunt Ethel basically starves to death. It is clear that Shute is very disappointed with the post-war reforms.
“Can’t you get her into the hospital?”
The girl shook her head. “She’s too old,” she said a little bitterly. “They don’t want people in there who are just dying of old age. She’s lost her pension because we’ve left India and the fund’s run dry. She can’t get an old age pension under the new scheme because she hasn’t contributed to it for fifteen years, or something. She’s spent all her capital in trying to live, and sold most of her furniture, and the bank won’t give her any more upon the house. There’s no place for old ladies in the brave new world.” (41)
There are several conversations like this one, discussing the current condition of England, and it makes for a fascinating historical record and a reminder of how unpopular many of the reforms were.
The shortages – and shortcomings of the Welfare State – in England are contrasted with the wealth and plenty in Australia. (Shute himself emigrated to Australia in 1945.) Ethel’s grand-daughter, Jennifer, visits the Dormans in Australia. She meets Carl Zlinter, a Czechoslovakian displaced person who is working in logging for two years as payment for his passage to the country as a ‘New Australian’. The romance between them and his efforts to build a new life form the rest of the novel.
A theme is the opportunity in Australia for people to make their own way and achieve success. (This independence is contrasted with the restrictions of England.) Carl Zlinter, who was a doctor in Czechoslovakia, is an example of self-determination as he works out his time as a logger and plans his new life in Australia.
The romance between Carl and Jennifer begins when she assists him when he (illegally) performs operations on two loggers who have been horrifically injured in a bulldozer accident. This is an episode where Shute displays his characteristic pleasure in technical detail, but it was compelling to read.
At our reading group a theme shared by the novels we had read seemed to be ordinary people doing extraordinary things. (And I have since read that this is a common view of Shute’s novels; see http://www.nevilshute.org/) Shute’s view is exemplified in the episode of the bulldozer accident. Jack Dorman says to Jennifer:
“I couldn’t have done what you did,” he said. “I’d have turned sick.” That wasn’t true, because when it comes to the point men and women are far stronger than they think, but he thought it was true.’ (121)
This impression is of course increased by the time in which Shute wrote – the two world wars imposed extraordinary events on people – but I do not think that Shute would ever write a psychological novel anyway!
Although Shute introduces several characters in a way that suggests they will be more central than they turn out to be, the overall impression is of a simple story. Shute seems very interested in people and their stories, but I do not think he sees people as complex or difficult to understand. His characterization is straight-forward, for ultimately, I think, he sees people as straight-forward.
However, I learned a great deal from this novel about post-war England and Australia, especially about ‘New Australians’. It was an absorbing read.