Nevil Shute was a twentieth century author who wrote single books, usually about ordinary people who found themselves in very difficult situations. He is perhaps best known for On the Beach and A Town Like Alice. I have all his books but haven’t read them for some years so I have been reading through them in order of date of publication. To be fair, the early books are not compelling reading and many are very average but What Happened to the Corbetts is an unusual book by any reckoning.
In the 1938 as war was becoming more and more likely Nevil Shute wrote this novel to describe what would happen if there was conflict. It’s not what actually happened but what he thought would happen and the book was supposed to act as a warning but also as an encouragement to the readers. It tells the story of the Corbett family – mother, father, girl, boy and baby. They are a relatively young couple, starting out in life, but he is a solicitor and they have both a nanny and a helper in the house.
As war breaks out there is a bombing raid on the city (the book is set in Southampton). Houses are destroyed, supplies become short and families have to dig their own shelters. Then the water mains are cut off and sewage escapes into the streets so that cholera and other diseases start to spread. The Corbetts flee to the water where they have a boat but they start to find it difficult to secure milk powder for the baby and law and order becomes more difficult to enforce.
This is a pretty straightforward adventure story which takes place over the course of about a week. It is fascinating to see what the author thought would happen and to compare it with what did actually take place – he wasn’t far wrong except with respect to the diseases and their spread. The book ends on a sign of hope in that Mr Corbett is able to take his place in the armed services and the author indicates that true British spirit like his will eventually win the day. The other interesting thing is to look at what ordinary life and priorities would have been like for a typical middle-class family at the time – they certainly smoke an incredible amount !
I suppose this book is now really a curiosity because it describes something which actually never happened. It is, however, still a well told story about how ordinary people might have faced difficulty and the author writes his characters and the situation well enough to be very believable.