It was the cover art by Mick Wiggins on a Vintage edition that drew me in at first; a warplane high in the sky while a man looks down at a group of children surrounding him. Looking closer I found out the book was first published in 1942 and that perspective completely fascinates me. Writing a war story without knowing how the conflict will all end, the idea is one that makes me shudder with the knowledge of that uncertainty.
Having pretty much immersed myself in literature from the twentieth century during the past four years I am so surprised not to have heard anything about this stunningly good read. As an author, Nevil Shute was on my radar but the buzz in these circles hasn't been overwhelming enough to tempt me. For those of you who would like to be pointed in the direction of a stellar novel then read on and for the others who already knew 'why didn't you tell me?!'
John Sidney Howard, sits in a club one evening in London during the war. Air raid sirens are sounding but he prefers to stay in his comfortable chair, sipping his drink. The narrator decides to keep him company rather than retreat to the bomb shelter as the scene has become one of normalcy. At seventy years of age Howard has been a regular at the club for decades but it is the first time the younger man is making his acquaintance. As the two sit alone listening to the dull thuds sounding off around them the older man begins to share a story about a fishing trip to France that ended very differently than he ever could have anticipated.
The Hotel de la Haute Montagne in Cidoton is considered to be relatively safe as Hitler and his men plot their takeover of Europe. Arriving at the hotel, Howard quickly becomes friendly with the Cavanaghs, a couple staying at the hotel with their two young children. Mr Cavanagh works for the League of Nations in Geneva and thinks it best to shelter his family away from any danger and joins them at the weekends. Rumours begin to swirl at the hotel that all guests will soon be told to leave making room for army officials. German soldiers have left Dunkirk and Paris has sounded an air raid siren. Feeling extremely uneasy, Howard decides his place is in his own country and perhaps he could even be useful as a volunteer with one of the many sectors. He begins to pack up his fishing rods and ask the hotel staff about train schedules.
Mr Cavangh pulls Howard aside to confide that he thinks it best if eight year-old Ronnie and five year-old Sheila were in Oxford with his sister. Mrs Cavangh will not be separated from her husband and convinced that in two days the children will be safe and sound, far away from troop movement, it seems the best idea. Would Mr Howard be willing to escort the little boy and girl back to England when he leaves? The reader now realizes that the narrator has slipped away and what follows is a wonderfully moving account of a gentleman's quest to see children home safely during wartime while the odds are dangerous and increasingly stacked against him.
I can't recommend this book highly enough. Nevil Shute was brilliant here at creating tension and his pacing was spot on, there were times I held by breath for fear of what would happen next. His sense of objectivity was also astounding considering the times and given the general opinion of most English citizens concerning Germany and its troops. As pointed out by John Boyne in the introduction, this is a war story with a different spin in that it isn't about the soldier fighting or the wife left behind, or widowed, it's about an older man doing his bit in his own way. If you haven't read this book then all I have to say is run out and find it and if you have, which Shute novel would you recommend next?
A warning to anyone picking up the Vintage edition; there is an excellent introduction by John Boyne (The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas) but it does contain spoilers. I started to read it but once I realized this was the case it was saved for the end of my read.