Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review

Requiem for A Wren

Published as "The Breaking Wave" in the US
By Bill McCandless

This is a story which tells the effect of War on young survivors who try, but cannot, re-capture the excitement and vitality of the experience. His earlier novel Pastoral wove a love story amidst the cacophony of war, an apparent contradiction. Ironically, it was easy to fall in love during those times. Janet Prentice is a former WREN who fell in love during the preparation for Normandy, but had it all destroyed. Her own exciting ordinance training and the thrill of bringing down a German Junkers 188 when it appeared over a sensitive invasion launch area, was dampened by the accidental drowning of a tank driver in a training exercise and becomes too personal with the loss of her fiance and her father. These shocks are painful but the breaking point comes when her fiance's dog is accidentally crushed by a Sherman tank and has to be killed.

She tries to re-order a world put asunder by random acts of violence, death and destruction. Mr. Shute apparently felt that his earlier treatment of this theme in a story called The Seafarers and in Blind Understanding (two unpublished works) were either trite or got too complicated. In Requiem he departs from his favorite literary approach and creates a dark tale of confusion and despair which was not matched till his treatment of the end of the world in On the Beach. In Requiem he is guilty of sermonizing about the self destructive urge in human nature. The conclusion that is drawn by more than one of these characters that the threat of war will never be removed until everyone who knew those exciting times is gone, is short-sighted and overly dramatic. However, in truth, it is a story that Mr. Shute had to tell because of his own war experience and his keen observance of its survivors. In a sense this book was a purgative for the author. He often questioned why any healthy person would do what he was obligated to do during the war, that is create newer and more destructive weapons for the "secret war", and yet he loved the excitement ! In 1943 he is reported to have said, "War is an activity both exciting and fulfilling, if you survive".

A man or woman in warfare is not responsible for the tragic slaughter of combatants or innocents. Janet assumes blame and responsibility when she learns that the seven passengers in the German warplane she shot down may have been trying to achieve asylum. She becomes obsessed with the notion that "God will even the score" and falls deeper into despair as she is medically discharged and in the grim days of postwar England is forced to attend the extended death of her Mother. Her fiance's name was Bill Duncan, an Australian Marine Sgt., and she had met his elder brother Alan,a decorated flyer, during a glorious weekend leave during their courtship. The brother is the only family member who knows about Janet and he is the storyteller. Alan loses both feet in the war and is blinded by self-pity and confused by his new role as inheritor and protector of his parents and those dependent on the success of their estate called Coombargana, in Western Victoria. As Alan returns to England to complete his education and Janet tries to mend her broken spirit, the story develops through Alan's contact with others who knew parts of the tragic story of these two lovers, and who have made the transition from war to peace more successfully. Through them Shute fills in the gaps in our knowledge about Janet and Alan, and traces a trail of near madness, disappointment and despair. Alan searches for Janet but she leaves to attend an aunt in Seattle and his search for the woman who would have been his brother's wife ends in failure.

Janet does find her way to the Duncan family but not as the dead son's fiance. She is unable to let them know who she is so she takes a position as parlour maid and becomes very close to his mother. Unable to face the prospect of Alan's imminent return, Janet commits suicide. Readers cannot avoid a comparison to A Town Like Alice. Requiem is the dark side of the coin, the prospect of what happens when the war ravaged spirit will not recover. Except for hopeful indications of dawning maturity in the Alan character at the very end of the book, there is little to indicate that Mr. Shute held out much promise for the traveler to ever "return home" without a strong determination and will to survive. Although this novel does not have the same hopeful and optimistic spirit as most of his other works, it represents another view of the man, and an interesting addition to our appreciation of his life works.