Shute is probably best known for his novels A Town Like Alice, Requiem for a Wren and his post-apocalyptic novel On The Beach, but he wrote a good many others ranging from early thrillers such as Marazan and So Disdained, to speculative later works such as In The Wet (switching narrative between the present-time and an imagined future) or An Old Captivity (reliving the past). Many of his books, such as The Far Country and A Town Like Alice are partly set in Australia, where Shute himself lived after the Second World War.
Before this, in the 1920s, Shute was involved in aircraft design for De Havilland, and many of his heroes or narrators are pilots or otherwise involved with aircraft. Pastoral, for example, tells the story of a young but experienced bomber crew during WW2, and the disruption caused to the crew by the pilot’s having fallen unhappily in love with a young WAAF officer at his station.
Likewise, the narrator of Round The Bend is involved with aviation: Tom Cutter is from a working class family in Southampton (his father works on the docks), who gets a job as a young teenager in an aircraft circus during the early days of aviation (post WW1) – where he meets Constantine Shaklin – and later becomes in charge of maintenance and repair of planes during WW2, where he learns to fly many different types of plane. On returning from Egypt after the war, he discovers his wife (whom he has rarely seen owing to his work) has committed suicide (she had been having an affair and was too ashamed to face him). Blaming himself for the tragedy, Cutter buys a small plane with his little capital and sets off to Bahrain to start an air freight business in the Middle East.
He becomes successful – Cutter’s narrative is interesting, weaving good fortune and good planning, and is more widely ranging, geographically speaking, than some of Shute’s novels, from England to the Far East – partly by employing local ‘Asiatic’ labour and pilots, and partly because, a few months into his venture, he is able to acquire a bigger plane and employ his former friend Connie Shaklin, to be in charge of maintenance and repairs.
Cutter gradually realises that part of Connie’s success with his local crews – not a byword for reliability or responsibility – is because he uses religion to inspire them to do good work. He adapts Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism into his creed of aircraft maintenance, depending on the faiths of the crews, and this later spreads across the East.
It’s some way into the book that one realises that Round The Bend is actually Connie’s story, not Cutter’s – though Tom is a principled character who gains the reader’s sympathy from the start. I felt it was rather a sad story; certainly reflective: it confounds certain narrative expectations and novelistic clichés, and is very thought-provoking.
I’d recommend almost all of Shute’s books very highly. Also recommended:
- Requiem for a Wren – a young man returns to his family’s sheep station in Australia, and unravels the mystery of his parents’ beloved maid, who has recently committed suicide, while also searching for the fiancée of his brother Bill (Bill was a Commando and died in WW2). Deals with war and its aftermath very well.
- On The Beach – the last survivors of a nuclear war await their fate in Australia before radioactive clouds finally make their way south and kill the population. Despite its sombre subject matter, really a hymn to human endeavour and the power of love.