Requiem for a Wren: by Nevil Shute

When things like this happen, there's just nothing to be done about it. Even suffering itself is a mere waste of time...

It is widely held (among those who still care) that Nevil Shute never wrote a horror novel during his long and famous career. Yet Shute's bibliography includes a fair few departures from the norm. An Old Captivity, for example, details an overworked and exhausted pilot who slips into a Norse coma;  In the Wet features a risible alternate history set in a socialist Britain during the 1980s and detailing the "plight" of the Royal family and attendant parasites; his (brilliant) first novel, Stephen Morris welds two early novellas together as an engineering fantasy - this is a recurrent theme in Shute's work: that the application of mechanical and technical principles to human problems can solve them, or at least nurse them home. And that, of course, is pertaining to science fiction. Which leads us to On the Beach, perhaps his most famous novel, an apocalypse tale that adds nothing very new to the genre but provides a reasonable point of entry. It was successfully filmed, as were Pied Piper, No Highway and A Town Like Alice. For me, Shute's best work is Requiem for a Wren, and to my mind this is his horror novel. It is also the saddest book I have ever read, perhaps the only one that I have ever wept over, so much so that I doubt I will ever be able to read it again. It is a one sitting book, and the sitting resembles a wake. The desolation the book imparts is quite beyond description; but if you've ever felt compelled to make a promise to a fictional character, then the promise you make to Leading Wren Janet Prentice is one you will never break.

On a military training exercise Janet Prentice makes a terrible mistake - she shoots down a German plane, as she has been told it is her duty to do; but in this instance the plane is not full of bombs but instead is filled with political refugees who have somehow stolen the airplane and escaped Nazi-occupied Europe. An inquiry finds she acted in haste and she is punished accordingly. Soon afterwards her fiance is killed while on a commando raid in France. She is left with her memories, both of her career in the Wrens, and his affections. She also has his dog to care for, which she does, as lovingly as his memory deserves; until one day while walking the dog on the beach she blunders into some army exercises and the dog is crushed to death by a half-track. It seems to Janet by now that she is operating under a curse - and she looks back on the fateful incident of shooting down the plane as the moment her life turned against her. She is entirely lost, but the worst is yet to come...

All of this is contained within a flashback narrative told around two brothers, both of whom are in love with Janet at various points in her life; it is their intersection with her tragedy that gives the novel its bitter and bittersweet qualities. In the end the reader must take a personal stake and berate the brothers for their inability to save this woman, first from the war and then from herself. But even then it is not that she cannot be saved; it is that she will not be saved, and the final tragedy is a senseless race against time performed in a future tense.

In a strange way Requiem for a Wren has suffered the same fate at the hands of readers as L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between - the demonic aspect has been overlooked in favour of the drama resulting in powerful tales diminished by the attribution of coincidence or passion play or common spite. The truth is that these novels are fundamentally esoteric - and in the case of Requiem for a Wren, it goes only to confirm the calculation that if war is hell, then hell is other people.


  1. I read On the Beach in my teens, which pissed me right off, and I've never gone near Shute since. To the extent that I thought about him at all, I assumed he was another "mainstream" soap-opera realist, which evidently shows how wrong you can be when you judge a book by its place on the shelves in the shop. An Old Captivity definitely looks interesting.

  2. To be honest, I'm not sure your original assessment is wrong. There is all that, and it's more evident in some novels than others. When I think about it, it could be that Shute's novels are soap operas for an industrial society, rather than a financial one, which automatically gives them the appearance of rather more substance. An Old Captivity is definitely interesting; it contains the usual simplistic relationship stuff, but large parts of it consist of practical arrangements for a trip to a sub-arctic island, the detail of which is almost anti-fiction. Then you have a book like Ruined City which is a sort of capitalist fairytale and which reflects his extreme right-wing views. At some point I decided that with Shute it was best to take him book by book, if I was at all inclined to do so, and I'm not really - I've been through about half his output and the remainder are marked to read, at some point, someday.

    I did read your comments on Threads a while ago, and I agree entirely. I was a young teenager as well during the nuclear scares of the early 80s, though I confess I found it all rather exciting. I'm not sure why - I think it may have had something to do with more or less permanent civil unrest in Belfast during that time, and I used the nuclear scare to give it context rather than look to local politics. Thankfully, as it led my reading to better places.