Friday, January 31, 2014

Friday's Forgotten Books: No Highway by Nevil Shute

No Highway builds an absorbing, suspenseful story around the unlikely basis of scientific research—which takes on a much stronger immediacy when it casts doubt on the safety of an airplane. The trouble is, the theory suggesting the aircraft are unsafe comes from Theodore Honey, an untidy, eccentric scientist whom few take seriously. One of his superiors, the book's narrator Dennis Scott, believes he may be right, but convincing higher officials poses a difficult problem. When Honey is sent to Canada to investigate the wreckage of one of the aircraft which crashed, he finds that the plane on which he is traveling is near the possible danger point and tries to have it grounded. The aftermath of this incident, Honey's relationships with a stewardess and a fellow-passenger he met on the threatened plane, and the involvement of the narrator and his wife with Honey and his motherless young daughter Elspeth, form the rest of the plot.

I read this novel after having watched and enjoyed the 1951 film adaptation No Highway In the Sky. It's a case, I think, where book and film are both very good on their own and complement each other well even though they differ in some particulars. In the book we get much deeper into the hearts and minds of the characters, and many are much better developed than the constraints of a film allowed. I found it curious how the film's casting, in a physical sense, was totally wrong, and yet still managed to pull off the portrayal of the characters so I felt I recognized them when I read the novel. The one I appreciated much more in the book was Monica Teasdale—her reflections on her simple American roots and what direction her life might have taken had she not become a famous actress are very moving, and naturally not something translated to film with the foreign glamor of Marlene Dietrich in the role. Jimmy Stewart's Theodore Honey was also played a little more broadly comical, whereas in the book Honey is rather more pathetic and troubled. In the film the doubts of Honey's sanity seem to be based more off his absent-minded personality, where the book gives him a background of more intricate issues such as his interest in spiritualism and apocryphal religious theories and prophecies. It seems more reasonable for people to doubt a man's sanity because he believes he can predict the end of the world from the angle of the Great Pyramid than because he tries to unlock the door of the wrong house.

Still from the film adaptation
The first-person narration is unique: the narrator relates events he witnessed, but also the parts that took place in his absence, with so much detail that it's practically third-person. I've only encountered two authors that used this method, Shute and Max Brand. You don't want to let the amounts of technical language put you off; even if it's Greek to you, you can just go with the flow and gain a basic understanding from the context, for it is after all a vital part of the story. It's written in such a way that I found it fascinating, even though most of it was beyond me. The film's main weakness, a rather abrupt ending, is not present in the novel, which is much better rounded off and concluded (the part that Honey's spiritualist dabblings play in the resolution is certainly eyebrow-raising, but somewhat amusing). Overall, a good read.

No Highway, first published in 1948, is available both in paperback and on Kindle. The movie adaptation is also available on Amazon Instant (free if you have Amazon Prime). Friday's Forgotten Books is a weekly blog event, hosted by Patti Abbott.


Yvette said...

My only memory of Nevil Shute is ON THE BEACH and A TOWN LIKE ALICE though I know he wrote many other books.

Apparently quite a few of them were turned into films.

Thanks for the intro to this one, Elizabeth. I'd never heard of it or seen the movie. But it does sound like something I might enjoy. The book more than the film since I am in the minority in not being a huge Jimmy Stewart fan.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Elizabeth, I enjoyed reading your review of this book as Nevil Shute has long been one of my favourite authors. I'm glad he is still read and written about today. "Beyond the Black Stump" set in the Australian outback was the last Shute novel I read. I haven't read this one, though.

Hannah Scheele said...

Oh goodness I'm so glad someone else saw this movie and liked it. I came across it on TV one time and loved it. He was such an interesting person. I sometimes wonder what it's like to be super intellectual and absentminded etc. Plus Jimmy Stewart is a family favorite at our house.