Thursday, July 22, 2010

Requiem for a Wren

Nevil Shute has a certain way of constructing his stories (or, at least many of them). I don't want to call it a formula, because it doesn't come across as mechanically formulaic, but, just as most of Shute's novels are about the war most of them feature a narrator/side character in the present, a section of reminiscing about the war and then a return to the story's present, in which the consequences of the memories unfold. Shute used that structure in A Town Like Alice and he uses it again, to very different effect, in Requiem for a Wren.

It should also be said that Shute is a bit of a romantic. And in Requiem for a Wren he serves up two love stories: one that is beautiful and complete, though short-lived, and another which is enduring and unrequited. Those stories, about two brothers in love with the same woman (although not in a jealous, competitive way) overlay the larger story about WWII and its often undocumented affects on the psyche.

So, the story goes like this. Alan Duncan, an Australian who fought in the air force during the war and lost both his feet in a crash, only to subsequently become a lawyer, returns home to his family's sheep ranch. (Shute is as much a fan of Australian vistas as I am, it would seem). Alan hasn't been home for a long time, so he's surprised that his father is a little down when he picks him up at the airport. It turns out that his parents' housekeeper – and English woman named Jessie Proctor – of whom is mother was especially fond, just committed suicide.

As it turns out, the suicide is quite recent and the body is still in the house. Alan, quite curious about the whole thing – especially because she didn't leave much in way of explanation – goes searching for her personal papers, which he feels certain she must have cached somewhere in little suitcase the suicide attempt failed. Well, he finds them. But they are not what he expects.

Jessie Proctor is really Janet Prentice, his dead brother's fiancee, who he has been searching for. He discovers this, not by looking at the body, but by reading the diaries and letters she left in the case. The documents chronicle Janet's time during the war and her relationship with Bill, Alan's brother. In England, Janet fought as a Royal Navy Wren – a female gunner who shot at enemy aircraft. She was quite accomplished at her job, which was good for England but left her with a horrible guilt she felt the need to atone for. After the war, after Bill died, Janet set off to find Alan. She travelled to Australia, where instead of finding him she found his ailing mother. Janet decided a life of service to her dead fiancee's parents would perhaps help her repay her debt, so she changed her name and stayed on at the ranch.

Without going into all the details, I will just say that the picture Shute paints of female service during the war is a really interesting one. There aren't a lot of mainstream portrayals of what it was like to fight as a woman (especially written by a man) and Shute brings a lot more to the realities of Janet's service than an endless swirl of suitors and parties. Make no mistake, Janet and her Wrens were fighters and, Shute seems to say, there is nothing particularly glamourous about that life, despite the fact that she managed to fit in a little romance.

As I said above, Shute's narrative style follows a bit of a pattern. But, by layering his story he draws you in to one part, then throw you backwards into another one (which ups the stakes in the first one) and then pull you back to the present with a new understanding and let the story unfold. It's almost sneaky, except that he's pretty open about what he's doing. That's what I like about Shute's writing. I mean, yes, it's a little old fashioned and of a certain style, but he makes you really care about his characters and what happens to them: He allows you to understand them – to see them for who and what they are – and let's you judge them as you wish. Not a lot of authors are that brave.

Requiem for a Wren is ultimately a rather sad story, but it is also full of sunny moments and small victories. By the end, you are left rather like Alan is, in love with Janet, unable to have her, but glad you got to know her so well anyway.

Requiem for a Wren
by Nevil Shute
First published in 1955 (cover image shown from Vintage Classics edition)

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