Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review

An Old Captivity

By Owen Hughes

Nevil Shute's style will probably not please the modern reader much, and that is unfortunate. His love of detail and the pains he goes to make sure of what he is stating are characteristics that I enjoy in his texts. Sometimes, he goes to an almost ridiculous extent to flesh out the reality of his background, when it probably would not be missed. Yet just as he does this, you can see him entering a truly fictional world in which, whoops, his characters suddenly do resemble real people and his narrative suddenly comes to life. It might be the extra effort Donald Ross goes to get the wireless to work, something banal and silly like that, but we know, almost without realising it that Shute is suddenly expanding a fictional context to include the all too likely possibility of future danger, and we realise just how much care is being taken. The work is not sloppy; it is methodical and I admit, at times a little dry. Yet when Shute's work really fires, it is because of this attention to the right kind of detail.

An Old Captivity has long been one of my favourite Shute novels. In a way it's an experimental sort of book: it takes the long wide arc of a journey from Britain to Canada via Iceland and Greenland as its background. The path of a small seaplane is traced with infinite pains to capture the solitude and the arduous nature of the voyage. Its three passengers are linked together in interesting and diverse ways. Slowly, against the further background of the Icelandic sagas, the tale emerges, and as usual with Nevil Shute it is not what we are expecting. Just when the clean, crisp, almost mechanical prose has us thinking one thing, Shute leaps off into a void composed of history and imagination. It's an extremely disciplined piece of writing and I hope you'll enjoy the ride.