Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Breaking Wave by Nevil Shute



Sometimes I think I am just not that good at reading some kinds of mainstream fiction. I am too easily aggravated. That's far too broad of a statement, I am aware. It's not like I only read science fiction, or even that science fiction is devoid of characters or plots that piss me the hell off. Still, I have even less patience for those elements when they come wrapped in mundanity.

Take, for instance, guilt. There are times when themes come up in multiple books in short order, so they stand out more in company than they would have by themselves. This is the first of two books (the second I haven't finished yet) that I read recently with a character who had guilt that verged on the pathological.

I actually found it more aggravating in the second one and more understandable here, but this idea of having survived something, or even done something that causes you guilt, and to then go out and see everything that happens in the world as a gun aimed directly at your head by God.... It's not that I don't think people do put themselves through that kind of unimaginable guilt. But push that this far, and you end up with an extreme solipsism, wherein other people's pain and deaths and lives are only relevant in so far as they say something about the guilty character. 

There's a self-centeredness to it, and when it's pushed to the levels it is both in this book and the other one I'm reading, it verges on the irritating as fuck. You just want to shake the character and tell them that not everything is about them. Not everything is about their pain. 

To recap: reading about guilt can be interesting. But when it looms this large, for reasons that seem entirely specious, it's not that fun to read. Not that this is supposed to be fun, exactly, given that it's about how many who served in the British forces in World War II found it hard to move on from the days of war. It's not so much a story of how war broke them, but rather that war spoiled them for more mundane life. That there's now a generation that crave war. (It is perhaps notable that none of these people saw front line action, although one was a fighter pilot who was badly injured.) They want the war back, to have those days of purpose and excitement at their fingertips again, damn the cost.

The main character is Australian, but has bounced back and forth between Australia and England since the war. On his (theoretically) last return to Australia to settle down, he arrives to find out that his parents' housemaid has just killed herself. On further investigation, he discovers she was his late brother's fiancee, a woman he'd actually just spent years looking for.

Why did she kill herself? I'm not sure there's an entirely satisfying answer here, but it is explored in full, through her guilt over having followed orders and shot down a plane that may have been trying to escape Nazi Germany. (But was flying right towards the hidden D-Day preparations, so....)  She has become obsessed with her life equalling out the the lives she took, counting deaths like beads on a rosary. 

It's interesting, and Shute's point about the war being a high point for some is a strong one. If you weren't right in there fighting, it might have seemed an adventure. 

I didn't love this book - the fiancee's need to see everything in the world as a vengeful God out to punish her got oppressively frustrating. Still, there's something here worth reading, if it's a topic you're interested in.


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