28 January 2013

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

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.

16 comments:

  1. You are so lucky to have discovered Nevil Shute. I "found" him about three years ago-I picked up "Requiem for a Wren" in a charity shop-the book made me cry-a friend at my Reading Group had a lot of the books which were published in the 1950s and 1960s-I have managed to pick some others up in charity shops.He is just a brilliant storyteller and his books are compassionate, exciting and page turners

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    1. Charity shops are a treasure trove of book gems aren't they! A hold has been placed on 'Requiem for a Wren' at my library and I will be sure to keep the tissues handy.

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  2. Oh, Darlene, if this is the only Shute you have read, what treats you still have in store! I haven't read Pied Piper yet, though it sounds wonderful, but everything I have read by Shute has left me slightly shaken and impressed. He was one of those all too rare and vastly underrated writers who could balance tense adventures and compelling characters.

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    1. Vastly underrated indeed and we just can't have that. My mission for the next little while at the library is to gently suggest, shall we say, his work to anyone who will listen. You HAVE to read Pied Piper, Claire.

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  3. I have this on my tbr shelves & now I want to read it straight away! I'd second the recommendation of Requiem for a Wren & also A Town like Alice. Both books are partly set in WWII but are about non-typical wartime subjects. Both were written post-war. I also enjoyed Pastoral, another book written during the war about a young pilot.

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    1. Well you just get yourself over to your shelves if you haven't already and set it aside to read - and soon! It's riveting, I promise you. A hold has been placed on Requiem for a Wren at the library and no doubt A Town Like Alice will be after that. Hope all is well, it's lovely to hear from you!

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  4. This is a huge favourite of mine, and now I just have to re-read Darlene! Thanks for the great reminder. I love to read it with two children's books (both also exceptional in their way) The Chalet School in Exile and The Silver Sword. I'd recommend either Requiem for a Wren or A Town like Alice too.

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    1. Most definitely a book to hug to your chest once you've finished, Donna. And I did! What a lovely idea to read this book with some children's literature to help erase that moment poor Pierre is standing by the side of the road. That image haunts me a bit if I'm honest.

      A hold has duly been placed on Requiem for a Wren at the library!

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  5. My review of Pied Piper here.

    The other one I'd recommend immediately is Pastoral.

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    1. I looked up the synopsis for Pastoral and it fits the bill exactly! We don't have that one at my library but I will definitely be keeping my eye out for it. Wishing I had known better when all of those Vintage editions were published several years ago.

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  6. Anonymous used the word "storyteller" and that is exactly Shute's greatest strength. We are engrossed from the get go. Quite often, as with this one, the stories are framed by a narrator who is removed from the action.

    My three top recommendations are The Pied Piper, A Town Like Alice and No Highway.

    All have been filmed, but I've never been able to get my hands on the No Highway movie, starring James Stewart. Certainly the mini-series of A Town Like Alice is well worth tracking down, and The Pied Piper was filmed twice, once in 1942 and again in 1990 (retitled in the US by Those Who Know Better as Crossing to Freedom).

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    1. Oh Susan, I've just watched a short clip of the 1942 version on youtube...my Mr Howard doesn't have a beard! Makes me miss spending a Sunday afternoon watching black and white films though.

      It's settled, I am just going to have to hunt down every single Nevil Shute book to be found in print.

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  7. I've meant to read Nevil Shute for years - he's one of my mum's favourites, but somehow I've never got around to it. I'm going to pick up the next book of his that I find now and give it a go - you have convinced me!

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    1. Excellent! I will just sit back and wait for the post where you sing Shute's praises...well, at least I HOPE you do. Your Mum must be an awfully patient woman because knowing the sort of books you like I can't believe she hasn't been leaving Shute's books lying around your room by the stack!

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  8. I remember my parents having books by Nevil Shute on their bookshelves, but I haven't heard of him for years. This sounds wonderful and I shall be checking the library catalogue.

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    1. You would love this book, I am sure of it! This was one of those novels that has you stealing all sorts of reading time you never thought you had. And just as in the case of Whipple, Taylor and Laski you wonder how such magnificent storytellers could ever fall by the wayside? Hope you can get your hands on this one, Jane!

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