Old Bestseller Review: The Chequer Board, by Nevil Shute
by Rich Horton
This book was not a bestseller, but Shute, a fairly popular writer for much of his career, had a major bestseller with On the Beach, 7th bestselling book in the US in 1957, and with his last novel, Trustee from the Toolroom (1960). So I think Shute fits that subcategory.
Nevil Shute Norway was born in England in 1899, His father became head of the Post Office in Ireland (shades of Trollope!), and Shute spent a few years there, and tended the wounded during the Easter Rising in 1916. He served in the First World War in its late months. He graduated from Oxford with an Engineering degree (Mechanical Engineering, we'd say now) and worked on airplanes and airships -- notably leading the development of the R-100, a promising British dirigible project that was scrapped after a test airship from a parallel government project crashed. Shute later formed his own company, which developed the Envoy, a trainer for the UK air force. Aeronautical details show up in several of his novels (including the one at hand) -- most famously No Highway, which concerned the failure of an airplane due to metal fatigue -- which happened just a few years later to the DeHavilland Comet. Shute served in Burma during the Second World War (an experience that strongly influences The Chequer Board.) He moved to Australia in 1950, and died of a stroke in 1960.
His first novel was published in 1926, and he published about 20 novels in his life, with a few more appearing posthumously. He signed his books Nevil Shute in order to separate his writing persona from his engineering persona. The Chequer Board was published in 1947, about when it is set. The UK edition was from Heinemann, the American from William Morrow. Apparently there was some concern about its reception in the US, as it is very critical of the treatment of black people at that time, but it seems to have been very successful. It was a Literary Guild selection. My edition is the 1968 Ballantine paperback.
I will begin with a caution for sensitive readers. The Chequer Board is overtly and honestly a book taking a stand against racism, dealing with both America's dismal treatment of our black citizens, and England's dismal treatment of its colonies; and with the demeaning attitudes most white people adopted towards blacks and Asians. Its heart is clearly -- and movingly -- in the right place; but it was written by a white British man in the 1940s, and as such it can't claim to truly understand the viewpoints of black Americans and of Burmans. (I use here the name for Myanmar that was then current, and the curious demonym Shute uses -- Burmans instead of Burmese.) In addition, Shute regularly -- very regularly -- uses the N-word -- surely accurately reflecting the way his characters would have spoken (and he does not regard the term as neutral -- he's clear that it is offensive, and that his black characters perceive it as offensive.) I think it would have a been false for him not to do so -- but I have been socially conditioned to find it offputting (and, to be clear, this is normal social conditioning, and a good thing.) Others might mind it even hard to take. The women characters are given agency and come off as real -- but the sexual attitudes of the day are accepted quite straightforwardly by the author -- he is fiercely anti-racist (in 1940s terms) but not feminist at all, seems to me.
The Chequer Board is framed by the report of a medical specialist who is asked to take a look at John Turner, who has been experiencing fits, and having difficulty with his coordination. Turner had been injured in a plane crash during the war (the book is set a year or two after the end of the war) and some shrapnel injured his head -- and some of it could not be removed safely. The doctor's diagnosis is that a piece of metal is causing brain issues for Turner, and that it remains inoperable -- Turner will die in a year or so.
Turner is a cereal salesman. He and his wife Mollie have no children, and their marriage is troubled. Turner, we quickly learn, is none too moral -- he seems to embezzle from his company in a minor way, keeping that money from Mollie, and in fact he was caught committing a similar crime in the Army -- the plane crash occurred while he was being transported back to England to be court-martialed. He ended up serving six months. Now, facing death, he realizes there are a few things he wants desperately to do in his last year -- primarily, to look up the three men who were in hospital with him after the crash. The hospital is connected with the prison, and two of these men are also awaiting trial: Duggie Brent, a commando, had killed a man in a bar brawl; and Dave Lesurier, a black American soldier, has been accused of attempted rape of a girl in the village of Trenarth, where his unit was stationed. The other man is Philip Morgan, the pilot of the crashed plane -- he'd been kept in the same hospital for convenience. Turner tells Mollie what he knows of these three men, and Mollie -- who is feeling oddly better about her husband, partly sympathy for his plight, and partly because he seems to have opened up to her more than ever -- agrees that he should try to find out what happened to them after they got out of the hospital.
Turner tracks down Philip Morgan's mother first -- and finds that Morgan served in Burma after getting out of the hospital, and stayed there, abandoning his wife. The mother is bitter -- but Turner knows Morgan's wife was unfaithful, and figures he left for good reason, and is probably living miserably in Burma. And he goes out there, hoping to help him out, and finds something quite different -- an extended, and quite exciting, section shows, essentially, Burma making a man of Philip Morgan -- and Morgan learning to respect and understand the people -- including his eventual wife. Turner learns something too ... and on returning to England finds his relationship with his wife much improved. He learns a bit about Duggie Brent -- a good lawyer got him off the murder charge, and Brent spent some time as a circus act, but the trail runs cold there. And he figures he'll never learn what happened to Dave Lesurier, who is surely back in the US. So Turner and Mollie decide on one last vacation, as Turner's health declines. But the canny Turner maneuvers them to Trenarth, where he figures he can ask the locals about Lesurier's case -- and we learn his whole story too, and about the villagers' relationship with the black soldiers, and how the arrival of a white unit messes things up -- and about the shy Lesurier's interest in a young local girl, which ends up leading to a trumped up rape charge.
All is resolved quite neatly -- maybe a bit too neatly, maybe there's a bit of implausible good fortune in the stories of all three men. But Shute's writing is immensely involving -- he truly had the mysterious skill of making the reader want to keep reading. And the message is inspiring and hopeful, with all the characters treated with respect and sympathy. It's a very involving, very moving novel. It is popular fiction, yes ... there is a bit of contrivance. But it's very good popular fiction. I'll be reading more from Nevil Shute.