Book Review: Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute

Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of Nevil Shute. He is a fantastic storyteller whose penchant for manly man adventures is balanced by his penchant for including strong female characters. Despite the fact that British born Shute only spent the last 10 years of his life living in Australia, his many books with Australian themes or settings place him in many minds in the pantheon of Australian writers. A somewhat forgotten or overlooked writer since his death in 1960, Shute has been getting a bit of attention in the blogsphere in recent years thanks to Vintage Classics reissuing four of his novels with fantastic new covers. And most recently the Riverside Readers book group read his nuclear Armageddon blockbuster On the Beach. You can see what Simon, Polly, Sakura, and Kim thought about that book on their blogs.

Since I find Shute’s novels to be unputdownable, I thought reading one of them would be a great choice for last weekend’s 24-hour readathon. So I picked up Requiem for a Wren which was the only Shute on my shelves that I hadn’t read. In it, we find Alan Duncan returning home to his parents’ farm in Australia after spending several post-WW II years in London. Right off the bat he, and the reader, are informed that his parents’ parlourmaid has just killed herself. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling some of the mysteries that swirl through the book. There were many aspects of this story that I found compelling and the novel drew me in as quickly as I expected, but overall I was disappointed with Requiem for a Wren. It felt like the more compelling outer story was, in the end, just a shell for Shute’s interest in writing about WW II which took up the majority of the literary real estate and comprised the inner, story within a story. Shute often frames his novels this way and it usually doesn’t give me any pause whatsoever. But in the case of Requiem I just don’t think I was in the mood for the shift.

Oddly enough, one of Shute’s biggest failings is one of the things I love about his work. As I have noted previously, and as Kim notes in her review of On the Beach, Shute’s writing cannot be called elegant. In Kim’s words:

Shute also tends to write in a fairly stilted manner, using phrases that seem ridiculous — “The breakfast came upon the table” — and referring to characters by their nationality or occupation — “The Australian”, “The scientist”, “The Commander” — which grate with constant repetition.

He certainly takes a similar approach in Requiem. The writing can be corny sometimes and feel a bit like a 1940s film with everyone talking in a rapid, clipped manner where every word is focused on moving the storyline forward. It can make for some one dimensional characters. But the odd thing is, I love this about Shute’s book.

Now that I have dissed both Shute’s prose writing  in general and the narrative structure of Requiem specifically, you may be thinking that I wouldn’t recommend this book. Not quite. As I have said I love Shute’s quirky prose and many of you would be happy to overlook it in favor of compelling story telling. And the story within a story structure of this particular novel wasn’t problematic, I just wasn’t in the mood for the inner story–I wanted more of the outer story. The only thing that should stop you from reading this book is reading another Shute novel. If you go back to this link, you can get a sense of which of his other novels you would find interesting. But if Requiem is the only Shute at hand, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute

  1. verity October 18, 2010 / 3:48 am

    I'm another big Shute fan – I wrote about him quite early on on my blog, including about this novel. This was one of the first Shutes I came too – he is such a gifted storyteller even if as you say his prose could be improved on. Which is your favourite do you think?


  2. Mary October 18, 2010 / 5:14 am

    I read “on the beach” when I was in my early teens. Thirty years later I still remember it well.


  3. Ted October 18, 2010 / 6:44 am

    I really loved Shute when I read him but I don't know this one. I remember how creepy I found The Scapegoat!


  4. Thomas at My Porch October 18, 2010 / 10:17 am

    Verity: It is tough for me to choose a favorite. I think Ordeal (known as What Happened to the Corbetts in the UK) is tied with In the Wet for my favorite.

    Mary: I think On the Beach would be really hard to forget.

    Ted: I haven't read The Scapegoat. Some of his lesser known novels are hard to find.


  5. Paperback Reader October 19, 2010 / 12:47 pm

    Eek – I really must add my review of On the Beach to the mix (I am behind on all reviews including book group ones).

    I have been wanting to read Requiem for a Wren since reading about it on Verity's blog; first though I think I shall read A Town Like Alice and Pied Piper (funnily enough -or not really seeing as it's me- they are the four Vintage reissues).


  6. verity October 20, 2010 / 12:37 pm

    Thomas – I've not come across EITHER of those – shocking! Not in the library, and not Vintage reprinted either…will have to keep my eyes peeled.


  7. chasingbawa October 21, 2010 / 10:51 am

    You know, the title of this novel is so familiar to me, yet I haven't read it. Not sure why. I really enjoyed On the Beach (and A Town Like Alice which I read at school) so I'm definitely going to read more books by Shute. And his writing style didn't really bother me. In fact, I felt it rather added to the general feel of the book. I like this title so I may go for this next.


  8. Thomas at My Porch October 23, 2010 / 12:32 am

    Claire: I love the Vintage covers for these. I wish Virago would take a few pointers from Vintage's art department. (Don't tell Verity I said that…)

    Verity: There is some possibility that In the Wet was never published in the UK. Although the book is staunchly Royalist, it imagines a scenario where the Windsors are nearly deposed in favor of a socialist republic. It also repeatedly uses the most racist of terms. It is actually the main characters nickname. He is a biracial Australian and actually perfers to be called by this name. Imagine the current Q of E using the N word in polite conversation!


  9. Thomas at My Porch October 23, 2010 / 12:33 am

    Sakura: I agree. Although I find his style a bit odd, I really like it.


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