Ordeal by Nevil Shute

I loved this book the first two times I read it, but reading it now as we start to emerge from the pandemic, was even more interesting.

Peter and Joan Corbett and their three kids (6, 3, and 1, if I remember correctly) live in Southampton in 1939 when the UK goes to war with an unnamed country that starts an intense bombing campaign. Written in 1938 and published in early 1939, it predicts the German bombings, but Shute also supposes the spread of communicable diseases because of damaged water and sewer infrastructure.

In order to stay out of quarantine, the family of five decides to rough it out on their small sailboat.

If you like reading about people putting things right, this book (and pretty much any Shute novel) is for you. And by putting things right, I don’t mean in the moral sense–although his characters are usually flawlessly moral–I mean in everyday, mundane terms. (Securing Peter’s bombed out office, making shelter from the bombing, helping neighbors, provisioning and reprovisioning their boat, rescuing an RAF pilot, etc.)

Shute’s novels can come across a little corny and old fashioned, but that is also what makes them fabulous. In this case, their constant quest for milk for the baby becomes kind of comical, mainly through repetition, but also because Shute seems to think that an infant can subsist only on cow’s milk. But rather than detract, that detail only reinforces the old fashioned, romanticized view of the past that I find totally engaging. Especially in these times.

(The novel is Ordeal in the US and What Happened to the Corbetts in the UK.)

3 thoughts on “Ordeal by Nevil Shute

  1. Michelle Ann May 13, 2021 / 10:47 am

    Thanks for the review, this will now go onto my TBR list. I first read most of Nevil Shute’s books about twenty years ago, but not that one. I also recently read Trustee from the Toolroom for the first time, another really enjoyable story of a good man undertaking an adventurous journey in order to sort out his neice’s inheritance.


  2. Karen K. May 13, 2021 / 12:54 pm

    I read this one earlier this year and I liked it, but it’s not one of my favorites by Shute. The whole situation was odd — do they even refer to her by name? Mrs. Corbett didn’t seem to care about her particularly. I did like the parts with them trying to survive and it is really timely, especially now with the crazy gas hoarding.


  3. Richard Hardin May 13, 2021 / 2:17 pm

    This comment about the sense of justice in Shute reminds me of 2 novels of his that are way beyond their time in analyzing racism: The Chequer Board for the Black soldier in Britain who attempts suicide, and the anti-Asian bias in Australia–sorry I can’t remember the title.
    Pastoral is a terrific, short but powerful account of night-bombing in the RAF.


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