Nevil Shute’s ‘No Highway’

First impression is the best impression and appearances do matter. That seems to be at the heart of Nevil Shute’s novel, ‘No Highway’. It documents the travails of an eccentric and socially inept scientist who struggles to convince his peers that the newly launched aircraft, popularly known as the ‘Reindeer’ are not safe and could crash dramatically in a matter of minutes on account of destruction of the ‘Tail Wing’ that balances the aircraft.

He is ably backed by his boss, Dr. Scott who is passionate about ensuring customer safety.But undoubtedly it is Honey,the ultimate underdog blessed with a precocious daughter, who is the hero. He even attracts the attractions and amours of two beautiful ladies – the ageing actress, Monica Teasdale, and the young conscientious air hostess, Marjorie Corder.

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Aircraft accidents and the technical theory behind them is a dry and technical subject. So it is not easy for any writer to generate enthusiasm among the  readers for the same even if he introduces human drama into it. But Nevil Shute made a rare success of the novel and it was even made into a film.

Sometime during the 1940s is when the action takes place and we need to imagine of a time when the famous Blackbox didn’t even exist and investigation into air crashes were difficult to conduct. It was a battle against the terrain and the conventional mindset.

In Honey we have a perfect underdog to root for – a brilliant but socially inept scientist. Someone who has lost his young wife during the war and aged on account of it. Someone who has a rather precocious daughter (but does not quite seem to know how to harness it). Someone who is forgetful and fails to make a strong impression on the people he meets.

Well the tale is interesting enough transatlantic flights have become popular and the British for once have taken a lead by introducing a state of aircraft named Reindeer. Unfortunately due to some experiments and pure theory making, Honey rather ineffectively postulates a grave safety hazard. His lifestyle makes it sound more dubious as he seriously believes in ideas like the world would come to an end.explores the possibilities of finding ghosts and even thinks that, in future, it is well possible and feasible that planchette and the related art of ‘automatic writing’ could become a reality. His moment of action comes when he damages an aircraft suspected to carry the defect.

He is able to win the affections of two beautiful ladies who openly admire his daughter, Elspeth and explore the possibility of linking their fortune to him. Sadly he is quite lost and does not readily spot the game that is afoot. Ms. Teasdale realizes that age doesn’t favour her and she cannot readily alter her lifestyle to suit the requirement. She forgoes the opportunity in favour of Ms. Marjorie Corder who eagerly snaps up the offer. The ‘beauty and beast’ angle is flagrantly played and the mindless romance can defeat the zaniest of Mills & Boon romances.

The mystery is finally resolved in Honey’s favour and makes a hero of him. Shute indulging in a bit of plotting to provide credibility to planchette and related talents is a bit of jar as he is usually rather rationalistic in his storytelling. Shute also does a remarkable job in depicting the pulls and pressures of the job; how office politics and power games are played even when people’s lives are at stake.

Overall a good ready and definitely worth a read. Shute also displays his formidable love and knowledge for aeroplanes and flying. His trends are cutting edge and ready predict some future events that are simply waiting to happen including the popular ‘ man on the Moon’ project.

Credit: Hulton Archive / stringer Courtesy: Getty Images
Credit: Hulton Archive / stringer
Courtesy: Getty Images

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