This book was part of the Nevil Shute library loot that I posted about a couple of weeks ago. I don't remember ever coming across Ruined City before, and I had no idea what it was about. I had mentally classified Nevil Shute as "light reading," but What Happened to the Corbetts and now this book reminded me that he writes about serious political, economic and social issues, in books set first in England and then in Australia, his home for the last ten years of his life. I didn't know what to expect from this book, and up to the last page I wasn't sure how the story would end. Nevil Shute kept me turning the pages to find out.
Ruined City is the story of Henry Warren, who runs a London merchant bank. Published in 1938, it is set in the mid-1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, but in some ways it could be set in 2011. As the book opens we see Warren putting complicated financial deals together, involving both loans and stock offerings. One proposal that he refuses involves funding for an industrial site that would create much-needed jobs. As he explains,
"This is a bank. I think I may say, a bank of good repute . . . We take in money on deposit, and it is my business to keep that money safe . . . It is no part of our business to take risks, or to make speculations with the money deposited with us. That is not our understanding with our depositors, and that is not our policy."
The first chapter was a bit of a slog, and I thought about setting the book aside, but I kept reading. The financial deals Warren makes are complicated, something of a Shute hallmark, though usually the detailed discussions in his books revolve around airplane. At least initially, Warren is not a sympathetic character. A workaholic, he rarely sees his wife Elise, who has her own money, an active social life, and a lover, an Arab Prince. The affair is food for gossip now just in their home but in both the social and financial worlds in which the Warrens live. Much of the gossip is centered in prejudice against Prince Ali Said's ethnicity, a prejudice Warren shares.
On a business trip to Paris, he unexpectedly meets Elise and the Prince, which is the proverbial last straw. He asks Elise for a divorce, and she agrees. When he returns to London, exhausted and feeling ill, on a sudden whim he has his chauffeur drive him to the North of England, where he sets off on a walking tour. Falling gravely ill, Warren is taken to hospital in a town called Sharples. He arrives without luggage or even his wallet, and the staff take him to be unemployed and down on his luck, admitting him as a charity case. As he recovers, he learns that Sharples was once a ship-building town, busy and prosperous, proud of the work of the Barlows shipyard. (He is told innumerable times that "There were seven Barlows destroyers at the Battle of Jutland!") Now the town is dying, and due to the depressed conditions, particularly poor nutrition, so are many of its people.
With the break-up of his marriage, Warren finds himself at something of a cross-roads. He is looking for a new challenge, a new purpose for his life. He finds that in a decision, taken almost impulsively, to buy the Barlows shipyard, which will put life back into Sharples, and rebuild that ruined city. To do that, in the midst of the Depression, when orders for new ships are hard to come by for prosperous shipyards, let alone one that has been shut down for years, will take all of Warren's considerable resources, and the strength of his reputation in the City. It will also involve shady dealings with the (fictional) country of Laevatia, described as a Balkan backwater, rich in oil and natural resources, governed by unscrupulous men out to enrich themselves. Despite an uncomfortably stereotypical description of the country and its people, it is interesting to see what the formerly staid London banker will do, how far he will go, to accomplish his goal - and not for himself, but for this ruined city on the northeast coast of England. Hovering over the story is the threat of war in Europe. As Warren recognizes, if Sharples is to benefit from rearmament, and also to contribute to the war effort, the shipyard has to be operational, which gives an added urgency to his work. At the same time, the work brings Warren personal satisfaction, helping to rebuild his own ruined life and eventually to find happiness, even in the most unlikely place.
A review I came across compared this book to A Town Like Alice, which is also about the rebuilding of a community, in that case a small dusty town in Australia's outback. Jean Paget is probably Nevil Shute's most appealing character, and A Town Like Alice his most popular book. If Henry Warren has greater resources, he faces much more complicated problems in Sharples. In the end, he proves as heroic a character as Jean Paget and Joe Harman. That seems to be one of Nevil Shute's hallmarks: stories of the heroism of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.