'Viola Dawson had been right about ex-Service people. Janet Prentice, at any rate, had banked upon another war that would solve all her difficulties and bring her back into the full, useful life she once had known. Without it she was lost, because another war had been her main hope since the end of the last one.'
By 1944 the number of Wrens enrolled in active service during World War II was at its peak at nearly 75,000 members. I can only imagine the excitement of these young women, many leaving home for the first time, to do their bit for the war effort. As the recruitment posters stated they were 'freeing up a man for the fleet'. Initially their duties included everything from being a cook to loading bombs onto fighter planes but as the war prolonged from one year into the next their level of responsibility increased. Wrens were eventually riding on warships, although not in active combat roles, and flying aircraft. If Shute's character, Janet Prentice, is anything to go by some were also becoming a crack shot.
This novel begins with Alan Duncan arriving back at his family's estate in Australia many years after the war has ended. The vast sunny acres are called Coombargana and in the middle of it all sits a large elegant home with only his two ageing parents and some hired help to occupy its space. The driver, Harry, sent to bring Alan out to the estate tells him that there has been some upset at the house as the parlourmaid is lying dead in an upstairs bedroom apparently as the result of suicide. Once settled with his parents he goes to the room and pulls back the sheet only to find the face of a woman he has spent countless hours and traveled through continents to find. How Janet Prentice went from being a Wren to his parents' parlourmaid and living under an assumed name pains and perplexes Alan. A search of her room reveals documents and diaries that have him sitting up all through the night and take the reader back to the early days of World War II.
We know how the story ends at the beginning of the book but I do wonder if that wasn't the case I would have been slightly more inclined to be riveted by the story. Written with less dialogue than what remains to be my favourite novel by Shute (okay, so this is only my second venture with this author) Pied Piper I felt ever so slightly removed from the characters. What this book does achieve really well is painting a picture of what is was like to be dutiful to your country and service and just get on with things regardless of loneliness, tragedy, or physical exhaustion. The sheer courage and bravery of going into an exercise while facing the possibility of death never fails to astound me for lack of another word while reading war chronicles, diaries or war fiction. I thank goodness every time that I am reading about this era from the safety of my couch and the distance of years.
As is so often the case World War II is romanticised; the love affairs, the uniforms, the dancing, the experience of travel and a sense of responsibility beyond your wildest imagination. It was interesting to read Janet's story and realize the impact that that era had on women in service and how much they yearned for it again - even if it meant another war.
If you enjoy World War II fiction then this is a wonderful read. If you've never read Nevil Shute before then I would steer you towards Pied Piper first as the storytelling and writing there is stunning in my humble opinion. And if you're interested in knowing a bit more about the Women's Royal Navy Service then click here!