Book Review: Pastoral by Nevil Shute

Pastoral – Nevil Shute (William Morrow, 1945)

I’ve read two Nevil Shute books now – A Town Like Alice and On the Beach – and enjoyed them both a lot. I appreciated the way Shute balances the reality and tragedy of war and death while focusing on individual characters and creating ones who feel like real people. This was true also for Pastoral, a story about a young man and young woman who meet and form a relationship on an Air Force base during World War Two.

Captain Peter Marshall is an excellent pilot, having led his crew on many dangerous missions. Flying in the RAF during the Second World War was a dangerous operation and the death toll of these young men who saw active duty was astronomical. Marshall is a cheerful young fellow though, determined to find joy where he can and do the best possible job he can by bringing his crew together. He and his men have bonded over fishing and outdoor adventures. Marshall is a character full of life and vitality. He’s easily likeable and his charm jumps off the page.

Gervase Robertson is a young woman working at the same base. She works on the ground in radio operations and takes her job extremely seriously. She’s a recent transfer to Hartley base and is bored and lonely. She sees Marshall as someone who is able to enjoy their station in a way she isn’t and the two are quickly drawn together.

What is extraordinary about the story told in Pastoral is its very ordinariness. Two young people meet and fall in love. There isn’t a lot of artificial, drawn out drama. The drama exists in their circumstances. That their young adulthood, instead of being absorbed in careers and marriage, is overcome by war. The danger of death looms over them at every moment and their loyalty and responsibility to their country and their military roles informs their every situation.

Shute does very well at drawing these two characters who are likeable and ordinary and who I wanted desperately to see to a happy ending. They are reasonable people, attempting to make reasonable decisions in an unreasonable time. I was bothered by the portrayal of Robertson, who is shown as smart and capable and thoroughly dedicated to her role in the war effort and yet suddenly, of course she would give it all up if she got married because being a wife means she couldn’t possibly also have a job, but I can concede that this was the prevailing attitude of the time.

There is something, also, all the more poignant about the fact that Shute wrote this story before the war had ended. We want a happy ending for Marshall and Robertson but in 1944, no one truly knew what that might look like.

The copy of Pastoral that I read was one I found in a library book sale. It was first printed in 1945 and is stamped as “A Wartime Book…produced in full compliance with the government’s regulations for conserving paper and other essential materials”.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: Pastoral by Nevil Shute”

  1. The times were certainly different then, although even now I suppose that a romantic relationship between work colleagues needs to be disclosed to management and one party be transferred so that they aren’t working together. It was always the woman who left up until very recently.
    I enjoy Shute’s straightforward style, too.

    1. It’s easy to see why a romantic relationship would be complicated in this scenario – they all have to be able to focus on their jobs in very high pressure situations. And Marshall is a highly trained pilot, very good at what he does and he works with a certain team so I can see why he would stay and she would have to go. But she makes this sudden shift from, My work for the war effort is the most important thing to, Oh well, I’ll just quit and wait at home for you. It felt contrary to her established character. Other than that, I did enjoy the glimpse of women’s roles in the war effort her and Shute’s style of writing.

  2. Hmm that wartime book note is interesting – did most books published in the U.S. have that stamp if they were published during the war? Also interesting that that stamp calls out the ‘war of ideas’!

    1. I’ve never seen this particular stamp before so i’m not sure how common it was. My grandmother used to have a cookbook with a stamp to say that the recipes in it were in accordance with wartime rationing.

  3. I like glimpses of women’s work during the war, but I too would be frustrated at the woman happily giving up work she cared about for romance (though I know that would be much more common back then)!

    1. A lot of my frustration came from the fact that for much of the book she was really adamant about not giving up her work and she stressed to him that it was an important part of the war effort even if it wasn’t as exciting as what he did. And then she just…changed her mind because she fell in love?

    2. I have known a lot of women do similar, to be fair, but it almost always turns out to be a mistake, so I would probably struggle to root for the couple in the book as a result!

    3. Sadly, it is the most realistic outcome. I was rooting for the couple but it was sad to realize how the thought of having both a career and marriage for her seemed entirely impossible to them both.

  4. I wonder if the author felt compelled to write about a war that was not over yet for a specific reason. Perhaps as a “witness” of sorts, to capture what was going on while it was happening? I’m not sure how well that works, though, when I consider the novels that were published during COVID that included COVID.

    1. There is sort of a lovely normalcy to the story. On its own, it’s a very simple story of a young man and woman who meet and begin to like each other. So I wonder if there was a desire to show how people were still continuing on in the midst of war. As far as I found, it worked for me. Covid novels that I’ve read so far don’t work because usually by the time they’re published, they’re already out of date. They seem to try to predict what happens next but when you’re living in the Next, it’s clear when they got it wrong. Shute doesn’t allude at all to the end of the war or what life will be like for them then and I think that works well here.

    2. Oooooh, if he left out the end of the war, that makes sense. I was going to say maybe he could write a war novel but looking at previous wars for clues, but then I realized we’ve had previous pandemics, duh, and all those novels still feel out of date. I read a book by a Deaf author that was not widely published in which a virus outbreak occurs, one that can kill you or leave you deaf, and how the Deaf community responds, and how the government responds. This was way before COVID, but for how close it was to the beginning of the COVID pandemic, I was impressed.

    3. It was actually kind of nice to read it, knowing the war would end soon when the characters didn’t know that. It was probably a heavier ending when it was initially published.

      What was that book called? It sounds really interesting. Did you see the movie Don’t Look Up? I know it was supposed to be about climate change but the whole time I was watching it I thought of Covid and how governments responded to the pandemic and how much the movie mirrored that response.

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