Tom Cutter wants to fly. As a young boy in Southampton, he leaves his job in a garage to hang around a flying circus. From this first job, picking up paper & cleaning the planes, he eventually becomes part of one of the clown acts & meets Constantine Shaklin, a boy of his own age of Russian-Chinese parentage. Connie is an unusual boy with his mixed parentage & experience of living all over the world. His religious curiosity also makes him different. He goes to church, synagogue & mosque, as if he’s searching for something or just exploring any idea that comes his way. Tom is intrigued but accepting of his friend’s eccentricities. Eventually the circus moves on & Tom moves on with it, working on the planes in the winter, learning all he can. After a few years, the circus is wound up & Tom finds a job with an aircraft company while he waits to be old enough to train as a ground engineer. Connie goes out to live with his mother in the United States & the boys lose touch.
During the War, Tom stays with Airspace as an engineer but also takes advantage of cheap flying lessons for employees & qualifies as a test pilot. He spends part of the war in Egypt, repairing crashed aircraft. At the end of the war, Tom returns to Southampton to consider his future. A brief wartime marriage had ended in tragedy &, although he’s offered an excellent job, he realises he can’t face staying in Southampton with the sad memories of his wife, Beryl. With his experiences in the Middle East, he decides to start a charter freight business for companies operating in Bahrain.
From humble beginnings with just one old plane, Tom builds the business up through sheer hard work & rigid economy. He has no racial prejudices & employs local Arab & Asian pilots & engineers, giving them responsibility & trust. He also knows that local staff are cheaper to employ than Europeans. The change in Tom’s fortunes & his life comes when he meets Connie Shaklin again. Connie is an engineer who had spent the war in Canada servicing aircraft. As a British citizen he joins up but insists that he won’t fight as his beliefs do not permit him to kill. His other skills are utilised instead & after the war he went out to Bangkok & worked for Siamese Airways. Connie agrees to work for Tom & takes over the engineering side of the business.
From the beginning, Connie exercises a remarkable influence over the other men. He begins an evening prayer session at which all religious groups are welcome. Connie’s own beliefs are never spelled out but he begins to be seen as a prophet, even a messiah by the locals. Tom is bemused but happy to let Connie continue as his workshop has never been better run & it’s obvious that his influence is good. The business grows as Tom buys more aircraft, negotiates better deals & expands operations into South East Asia. Connie’s religious mission also seems to be growing in popularity until there are hundreds of people gathering at the airfield each evening for prayers. This causes some friction with the local British authorities, already a little suspicious of Tom’s willingness to work with the locals & stay outside the establishment. eventually, tom is told that Connie must leave.
On a trip to Burma, Tom meets an Englishman, Colonel Maurice Spencer, who has become a Buddhist monk who has heard of Connie & is keen to learn more. He speaks of Connie & his mission in a very mystical way,
We must look for the new Teacher. One day the Power that rules the Universe will send us a new Teacher, who will lead us back to Truth and help us to regain the Way. There have been four Buddhas in the history of this world, of whom Guatama was the last. One day a fifth will come to aid us, if we will attend to Him. Here in Burma we earnestly await His coming, for He is the Hope of the World.
Connie’s religious mission continues alongside Tom’s more prosaic story of his business. Connie’s sister, Nadezna, comes out to Bahrain to work as Tom’s secretary; the business continues to expand & it becomes obvious that Connie’s mission is drawing to a climax.
Round the Bend is an unusual novel with a mixture of the practical & the mystical. The story of Tom’s business is remarkably detailed; Nevil Shute’s books all have this quality of building up the layers of detail, very practical & methodical, detailing all his decisions & contrivances. I found all this fascinating & Shute’s own background in engineering is obvious. On the other hand, there’s the ephemeral nature of Connie & his mission. Connie himself is modest, self-effacing but remote, rejecting all human relationships apart from his love for his sister & friendship with Tom. He seems to do very little but his influence on those around him is profound. The Christian overtones are sometimes a little too obvious, as when Tom denies that he thinks Connie has any divine qualities three times, but generally, Connie’s influence is seen as a general force for good without beating a drum for any one kind of religious experience.
I found that the two aspects of the story worked well together. The Middle Eastern & Asian setting helped with this, I think, as Westerners still see the East as mysterious & this plays in to our perceptions as readers, as we identify with Tom. Round the Bend is a compelling book & I found it very hard to put down. Shute’s style is so matter of fact, almost prosaic, that the religious elements seem quite ordinary within the charmed circle of Tom & his company. Tom himself just accepts Connie for who he is, without prejudice, as if he has been just as affected by Connie’s magnetism as the workmen who believe that he is a prophet. The reactions of others, usually Europeans, just point the difference between two vastly different ways of looking at the world. I have several other Nevil Shutes on the tbr shelves & I’m looking forward to the next one very much.