Book Review: In the Wet by Nevil Shute
This is rather an odd book by the author of On the Beach and A Town Like Alice. It starts as the story of Roger Hargreaves, an aging Anglican priest in Northern Australia in the 1950s. In the course of his parish duties, Father Hargreaves meets a colorful local character, an old drunk named Frankie. Frankie may have some sort of precognitive abilities, or maybe he just got a lucky guess. Still, there’s more to Frankie than meets the eye.
During the rainy season, (as the locals call it, “in the wet”,) Hargreaves receives word that Frankie is dying. Along with a local medical woman, he hurries to the remote cabin Frankie is staying in. They lose their medical supplies in the floods, and the lamp fuel is almost gone. There’s not much to be done for Frankie but allow him to smoke opium to dull the pain. To distract Frankie, Hargreaves asks the dying man to tell the priest about himself.
But the story Frankie tells is of Wing Commander David Anderson, an Australian test pilot who is asked to become a member of the Queen’s Flight (kind of like Air Force One for us Yanks.) As the story continues, it becomes clear that Anderson lives in the 1980s, a time of crisis for the Commonwealth.
After this paragraph, I’ll be going into SPOILER territory, and also some racially charged language. For those who don’t want to see that, I’ll say that this is an interesting book, but On the Beach was better. Some very nice sketches of North Australian life in the 1950s at the beginning and end, though, and the aviation scenes are excellent.
1980s Britain is not, in many ways, like the one in our timeline. For starters, there’s still food rationing. Rosemary Long, our hero’s love interest, has a good job at Buckingham Palace and can afford her own good sized sailboat, but has never seen an intact pineapple before, let alone had enough meat to worry that it might spoil. (In real life, rationing officially ended in 1954, with many items being derationed well before that.
Also, Britain is largely Socialist, with Labour having been in power almost uninterrupted for the last thirty years. (Evidently, Mr. Shute did not have confidence in Winston Churchill’s ability to hold onto the Prime Minister job. In real life, he was able to swing the voting to the Conservative party for quite some time.) This has resulted in the Prime Minister, Iorweth Jones being a barely disguised Communist, (Communism having gone out of favor after “the Russian war”) with a class warfare mentality. Also, the Secretary of State for Air is so out of touch with the state of aeroplane technology that he is unaware planes have things called “radios” now.
One thing Mr. Shute did get right was that Queen Elizabeth II is still on the throne, with Charles as the Prince of Wales. Charles is married and has two sons. Well, he does on page 111. A daughter pops up as well on page 181.
We don’t get much information about the Russian war; it was a few years ago, Commander Anderson spent most of it in the Philippines, it evidently did not go nuclear, and there’s no mention whatsoever of the Soviet Union. As mentioned above, the end of the war discredited Communism as a viable government style.
Britain is also undergoing a population crash, due to heavy emigration (in our timeline they mostly had immigration from the former colonies and Commonwealth.) Things have gotten bad enough that the government nationalized housing after the 1970 crash and hasn’t given it back since. Rosemary has never seen a new house being built, to her memory.
Meanwhile, Australia’s been doing great, thanks to the new multiple vote system. Every adult gets one basic vote. if you get higher education, you get a second vote (Anderson got his for officer school.) Working outside the country for two years gets you the foreign travel vote (Anderson admits this is pretty much a racket so military veterans get an extra say.) Getting married, staying married and spawning two children who you raise to at least fourteen gets you a family vote. (Divorce, widowry or your kids dying or disappearing means starting all over.)
There’s also a business vote for anyone with an earned income over a certain amount (and it’s substantially high) and a religious vote for anyone holding an office in an approved Christian church. That last one would never fly in America! Finally, there’s the Queen’s Favour vote which you get in much the same way you would a knighthood. Thus a truly dedicated person can have up to seven votes; somehow this has led to Australia getting a better class of politicians.
By the end of the book, England is looking to install the same voting system. Notably, England had had a similar thing called plural voting up until 1948 in real life, when it was reformed for a one person one vote system. Instead of multiple voting, real life Australia went with “preference voting” instead, where you rank candidates in order of how much you like them.
In other political oddness, the Queen seems much more involved with ruling the Commonwealth than the largely figurehead role she had in the real 1980s. She even moves the Royals to Australia, and appoints a Governor General for England as it’s clear Parliament can’t handle the job.
Oh, and what will be truly horrific to some of you, rock and roll never caught on, and ballroom dancing with live orchestras is still the thing.
And then there’s the racism weirdness. Mr. Shute was against racism, especially Southern United States style racism, but it’s expressed oddly here. Commander Anderson is mixed race, being one-quarter Aborigine, and apparently is light-skinned and fine-featured enough that most people assume he just has a tan. He goes by the nickname “Nigger,” and insists all his friends call him that.
You can sort of see that, as a way of “reclaiming the word” and apparently Commander Anderson’s worried that people will think he’s trying to “pass” if he doesn’t bring up his ancestry directly. But it’s still very jarring. Especially when he uses the phrase “nigger in the woodpile” unironically. It’s clear that most of the characters consider his deeds more important than his ethnicity, and indeed, he’s the only one to ever bring it up.
The sections set in the 1950s have more obvious casual racism. There’s a bit of author blindness to sexism; the Queen rules but all the other speaking women in the 1980s are secretaries, telephone girls, stewardesses and maids. Rosemary majored in history and paid special attention to the suffragette movement, but otherwise seems content with a 1950s style romantic relationship.
If you’ve read the book and have some comments, by all means let me know.