Saturday, February 17, 2007

An Old Captivity

Back in 1940, Nevil Shute, gradually becoming a much-acclaimed writer, published a book called, An Old Captivity. It was republished in 1967, and again in 1969. I have a copy of the 1969 edition, which I picked up at some fair with the intent to sell it off to Trade Me. (The book is again in print, by the way.)
Being short of something to read one day in the couple of months before Christmas I started into it. Full of detail about seaplanes and the flying of them (at least as far as things pertained to that period), the landing of them, the navigating of them, the full-on workload of maintaining them, and the not inconsiderable fact – which no doubt led to the demise of seaplanes commercially – that virtually everything has to be done on the water: refuelling, maintenance, cleaning up, removing bits of engines and so forth. Only occasionally is the thing pulled up on land, and then you get the feeling that this isn’t quite infra dig.
There’s not a mention of the War in spite of the time it was written. It’s strung together with three major characters who remain as bland throughout the book as they mostly are at the beginning; and told in an off-hand way with no suspense and nothing in the way of plot.

It’s a romance for a man who likes seaplanes. Consequently the romance side of it is barely worked on, and is summarily dismissed at the end.

More than three-quarters of the way through the book, after lots of flying time (described in detail – and certainly Shute knew his stuff), the main character, the pilot, has a long dream (he’s unconscious for three days). In it he sees himself in a period more than a thousand years previously, when the Vikings ruled and took slaves (from Scotland, in this case) and sailed the world, and discovered America. In the dream he falls in love with the only female slave of any consequence, and the two of them are about to escape when…he wakes up. The book ends some twenty pages later (!) having introduced a fantasy element into an otherwise very down-to-earth book (if you can describe a book about flying in such a way).

I only stuck with this book because I had read quite a bit of it, always waiting for something to happen, and thought Shute might finally have a surprise up his sleeve. Nope. It’s more like he wanted to describe what it was like to fly a seaplane, in detail, and tacked a story on to it. Somewhere along the line he realised he hadn’t really given his readers much to go on, so he bunged in a dream sequence. Having done that, he polished the thing off.

It runs to nearly 300 pages, and I’ve learnt heaps about flying seaplanes, if ever I should need this information. I’ve learnt nothing about what Shute thought about love and romance, and if I was a beginning writer, I’d know nothing about building a plot, producing suspense, or rounding out characters. Shute had written six novels before An Old Captivity, none of them as well known as later efforts. He was working on military projects for the War when the book was written, which may have distracted him a little.

There’s a very good summary of his life and work on Wikipedia, as there so often is these days!
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