A review by Helen Yeomans
There's a reason why Pied Piper is one of Nevil Shute's most famous and best-loved novels. It's a very simple story-an old man escapes Nazi-occupied France with a handful of children-and it's told extremely well. This point is important, for simplicity in art is a dead duck unless each of the relatively few elements is rendered faultlessly. Pied Piper was Shute's eighth published book, and he had the experience, the craft and the confidence to tell it perfectly.
The story begins and ends in the smoking room of a London club during the 1940 Blitz, where the narrator and the elderly John Howard decide to remain with their armchairs and Marsala rather than seek the safety of the shelter. Howard has aged since the spring, and we begin to find out why. Impelled by restlessness and grief, he decided to visit the French Jura in April, and he is there, two months later, when the Nazis invade Belgium.
Howard immediately makes plans to return to England. He agrees, reluctantly, to take two children with him. In Dijon he is pressed to accept a third. A fourth is added on the road to Montargis, a fifth in Pithiviers; ultimately two more children complete the party. In between, he reaches Chartres, finding the French girl, Nicole, daughter of an old acquaintance from the Jura. Nicole helps them to reach the French coast, and along the way Howard discovers that they share a common grief.
The best stories turn less on external events than on the actions and choices of the characters, and Pied Piper is no exception. The Nazis are only the indirect enemy, and in fact their portrayal seems dated today. But the main characters are beautifully drawn, and much of the plot hinges on the frailties of age, of both the very old and the very young. This is the real enemy, the fifth column within the little group. Howard's weak heart, Sheila's childish fever and Ronnie's heedless English chatter supply much of the story's tension, and each additional child jacks it up a notch as their progress slows to a crawl. Yet it is not in the old man's nature to refuse a child, nor do we want him to, even though we know that he could reach safety if he would just get a move on.
Howard eventually wins through to England with his seven charges, by means of passage in a fishing boat to Portsmouth. But he leaves his affections in France, with the girl who refuses to accompany him. His story closes as the bombing ends on that London night, and as he leaves the club, the narrator lingers to hear the porter observe of the old man: "He went away for a long holiday a month or two ago. But I don't know as it did him a great deal of good."
Pied Piper is a poignant tale of love and loss and the loneliness of old age. It displays Nevil Shute's prose at its sparest and most effective, and is sure to win new fans for many years to come.