Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute

I am very behind with my reading already this year -- normally by this time I've read at least four or five books, if not more. I really needed a fast read to get me inspired, so I turned to one of my most reliable authors, Nevil Shute. I think this is the eighth book by Shute that I've read, and I've mostly enjoyed all of them. They might not be considered great literature, but he is a great storyteller, and normally I can hardly put his books down.

Published in 1947, The Chequer Board is the interweaving story of four WWII soldiers who are linked together after surviving a plane crash. They're all assigned to the same hospital ward and the most seriously injured, John Turner, suffers a very serious head wound, and his eyes are bandaged. While convalescing, the other three, previously unknown to Turner or each other, all read or talk to him, to help him recover. Several years after the war, Turner begins to have side effects from the head wound, and upon consultation, learns that shell fragments have been left behind in his brain, which are inoperable, and he has about a year left to live. 

Two of the three in the ward were also crash survivors, and the third was a Black American GI. One of the crash survivors was one of the pilots, who was very racist and snobbish to the Black American. The other three -- Turner, the American, Dave Lesaurier, and a third crash survivor -- are under guard together because they're awaiting court-martial, accused of various crimes. Turner has always wondered about the other three men in the ward with him, and decides to use the time left to try and track them down and see what happened to them. 

So, the story goes back in forth in time between the wartime experiences of the three men, and Turner's search for the them, which takes him all around England as far as Penzance, and all the way to Burma. (Another book about Cornwall! The universe is obviously telling me to go there).

This pulp paperback cover is . .  . something

There's a lot about race relations and prejudices in this book, both with the racist pilot, Morgan -- who ends up living in Burma, to the chagrin of his mother (the reader can see where he got his prejudices) and also with the Black GI, Dave Lesurier. It was very interesting to me to see how Shute was trying to explore racism and race relations in the UK at the time, and I honestly can't imagine an American writer of that era attempting the same. Those two stories were my favorites in the book, though there are quite a few racial slurs repeated, including the N word, which is so infuriating. The story is trying really hard to make the point that white people need to get over it and look past color, but Shute kept throwing the word in, which was pretty frustrating. There's also some sexism which made me roll my eyes.

Overall though, the message about getting along is pretty strong, and there are some great characters and development. In particular I liked learning how the residents of a small town in Cornwall supported a group of Black GIs. I know racism is still a big issue in the UK but it was nice to see someone in the 1940s pointing out how the Black GIs were treated better in England than they were at home. 

I also really enjoyed reading about Burma, which I briefly visited years ago on a trip to Thailand. That section of the book was very reminiscent of A Town Called Alice, one of Shute's best-known books, though that one is set in Malaysia. There are at least seven or eight more books by Shute I still haven't read, and I look forward to reading them all.

This is my first book for the TBR Pile Challenge.

7 comments:

  1. I really like A Town Called Alice, but I think I must have seen the PBS series before I read the book. I'd like to read more Shute but I am not sure this is the one for me.

    Did you ever see a show called Tenko? It was on A&E many years ago before there were cable guides and long before there was Internet, so one never knew when it would be on and some episodes seemed to be repeated endlessly but then you'd turn it on and you'd get episode 1 again, in which Singapore is attacked during WWII. As you can guess, I was quite obsessed but I only saw about 6-7 episodes. I see I could now watch it on BritBox but I suspect if I subscribed to BritBox I would not get my master's degree done this year!

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    1. I've never heard of Tenko, I'll have to look for it. I know so little about WWII in Asia, so many WWII books and movies are in Europe. I really liked A Town Called Alice and I forgot there was an adaptation.

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  2. Sorry, I meant to say the plot was somewhat like A Town Called Alice!

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    1. I knew what you meant, the scenes in Burma definitely reminded me of the forced march in A Town Called Alice. It's still my favorite of his books so far though I really liked Pied Piper also.

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  3. I've never even heard of this particular Nevil Shute book, but it sounds like one I would like.

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    1. I really started reading Shute because Thomas at Hogglestock has said so many good things about him. I've read seven or eight of his books so far and really liked all of them. I don't know if it's exactly literature but he really knows how to tell a good story! I think the only one I didn't like was On the Beach because it was just so depressing. I read it in April 2020 which was probably not the best idea.

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  4. A Town Like Alice is one of my all-time favorite books, but I still haven't read anything else by Shute. The premise of this one is fascinating, although I would be going in with eyes wide open regarding the ongoing offensiveness of the racial slurs. That would be tough going.

    Excellent review--really enjoyed reading about this book.

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