Thursday, August 18, 2011

Caught in a new kind of war

What Happened to the Corbetts, Nevil Shute

My branch library has some shelves and carts in the lobby with books for sale, the proceeds of which benefit the library.  I can never resist stopping to browse, and it's always interesting to see what people have donated.  (I've given them quite a few myself.)  One week there were several shelves of film and TV screenplays, another week a complete set of the Hornblower series.  Last week, there was a whole row of Nevil Shute novels.  Other than A Town Like Alice or On the Beach, I rarely come across his books  in the used book stores, and here were four that I had never read.  I love that kind of lagniappe.

The Corbetts of the title are Peter, his wife Joan, and their three children. The family lives in Southampton, where Peter works as a solicitor.  As the story opens, they have taken shelter in their garage after a night of what one of the children describes as "loud bangs."  These were actually bombs, at least 1,000 of them, dropped in a night raid, part of a coordinated surprise attack across England.  Later that day, Peter learns that England is now at war, though we the readers are never told with whom or exactly how the war started.  The massive bombing raids continue, destroying the infrastructure of the city, leaving residents without water or power, halting the delivery of food and other necessities, making homes uninhabitable.  This part reminded me very much of life in Houston after Hurricane Ike.  Though the damage was less extensive than what Shute describes, we were left without power and in some areas water for weeks.  Even the simplest tasks of daily life were unbelievably complicated, and we learned very quickly how spoiled we had become.

What Happened to the Corbetts follows Peter and Joan through the first days of the new war, as they cope with the daily difficulties of life, faced with life and death decisions about their family's future, as the bombs continue to fall.

Nevil Shute wrote this book in 1938, and it was published in April of 1939.  As he explains in a Preface to later editions, part of his aim in writing the book was to make people aware of the dangers England would face from bombing, if the war that he saw looming became a reality.  A pilot and aeronautical engineer, he understood the role that aerial warfare would play.  He was therefore writing his expectations about what kind of war it would be.  He wrote a similar kind of speculative book with In the Wet, published in 1953, where much of the story takes place in the 1980s.  But with What Happened to the Corbetts, the real war would come only a matter of months later.  It took a different form than Shute predicted, but he believed that his book had still done something toward preparing the people of England.  His publishers must have thought so as well; they had donated a thousand copies to air raid workers.

Besides all that, though, What Happened to the Corbetts is just a good story, full of action and suspense.  I've enjoyed most of the Shute novels that I have read, especially the World War II novels such as A Town Like Alice and Pied Piper (though not Requiem for a Wren).  Now I still have the three other new ones to look forward to.


  1. How fascinating that he wrote a novel to warn people about bombing raids - and that it is also a good story! I can't imagine what it would be like to live without electricity or water or other basic necessities. I hope I never have to find out. I think books that depict such horror and deprivation are a good reminder of how fortunate most of us really are.

  2. Nevil Shute puts a lot about airplanes and boats into his books, sometimes pretty technical information, and it could be rather overwhelming, except that he tells such good stories. You care about his people and what happens to them.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!