Friday, 1 October 2010

PIED PIPER by Nevil Shute

My cousin gave me this to read on the plane last week. I was glad to see it. I've only ever read one other Shute - when I was about fourteen - ON THE BEACH, which made a really big impact on me (in the way things do much more often at fourteen than at thirty three). Essentially, it tells the story of a bunch of people waiting on a beach in Australia for the nuclear cloud that has obliterated the rest of the world to float towards them. I loved it. So much so, that I'm scared to re-read it in case I don't love it anymore. Anyway, PIED PIPER makes me feel I could go back to the BEACH, because I really like it too.

It tells the story of an elderly British man who decides to go to France for a spot of fishing. Not too much to make a novel out of there, except that the year is 1940, and Germany is very much on the move. Once he's been there for a little while, it begins to look more likely that France will fall, the man decides to leave for London, and another guest at the hotel asks him to take their children (aged 5 and 8) with him. He agrees, thinking that this will entail simply a train ride to the coast, and then the ferry – a journey of less than 24 hours.

Unfortunately, on the way, one of the children becomes ill, so they are forced to wait in a hotel. By the time they can leave they are having to constantly change their travel plans, as word reaches them of this or that train or port shutting down as the Germans advance. You get very much the sense of what it would really have been like to be in France at this time: everything is based on rumours and surmise, and no one thinks for a minute that Paris will actually fall, until it really does. Eventually, he is reduced to walking with the children, while the roads are machinegunned, and attempting to keep his nationality a secret to avoid arrest and internment by the Germans. As they proceed, they pick up other lost or abandoned children on the way, till he eventually is looking after five children.

We learn that the reason he chose such an odd time to go on a French holiday was because his son was killed in the very early days of the war, and he spends much of the book trying to come to terms with the loss. He does eventually get all the children to safety, and, in a beautifully handled parallel arc, comes to accept the death of his own child.

This is a cleanly and intelligently written page turner with lots of heart. It kept me up till 3am finishing it, which I do not think was just the jetlag.

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