An Old Captivity – Nevil Shute

This is such an unusual book, a mixture of exploration of the far north, the minutiae of flying a seaplane & a possible reincarnation experience reaching back to the Vikings & the time of the Icelandic sagas.

An Old Captivity (cover picture from here) is the story of an archaeological expedition to Greenland. Pilot Donald Ross has spent time flying seaplanes in the far north of Canada. When he returns to England, he is offered a job flying a seaplane on a survey commissioned by Oxford don, Professor Lockwood. Lockwood’s industrialist brother finances the expedition & Ross, once approved by the Lockwoods, is given carte blanche to order a plane & organize everything they’ll need. He sees this job as a great opportunity, a stepping stone to more lucrative work. Professor Lockwood’s prickly daughter Alix, is not so impressed with Ross. She suspects him of inflating the cost of the expedition & taking advantage of her unworldly father’s enthusiasm for surveying the remote location. Ross is equally unimpressed with Alix & is disconcerted when Lockwood announces that his daughter will be accompanying them on the trip. A photographer, Jameson, will meet them at Greenland but, until then, Ross has to do all the work involved with flying & maintaining the plane.

The Lockwoods soon realise just how much work Ross has to do & regret that they hadn’t insisted on an engineer taking Alix’s place. The testy relationship between Ross & Alix gradually thaws as she begins to appreciate Ross’s abilities & begins to help him as much as she can. After adventures including an unexpected night at a native settlement, they reach the town from which they’ll set off on the survey to discover that Jameson has a broken leg & can’t make the trip. Ross & Alix quickly learn to operate the camera & take the survey photographs.

Ross is a conscientious & methodical man. His constant worry about the work he has to do & the responsibility of the plane interfere with his sleep. He’s given a bottle of sleeping tablets by a chemist in Reykjavik & he soon finds he can’t sleep comfortably without them. On reaching the settlement in Greenland, they make camp at a location where earlier settlements had long since vanished. Their native workmen refuse to sleep at the camp & move to another place a mile away. All they will say is that they’re afraid to sleep where the old people once lived. The survey work goes well, the weather is in their favour & Ross & Alix become closer as Ross realizes that he’s fallen in love.

One night, Ross falls asleep after taking three sleeping tablets & falls into a coma that lasts 36 hours. Spooked by the tales of the old people, the Lockwoods manage to move Ross to the other camp &, gradually, he regains consciousness. He tells an amazing story about a dream he’d had while he was unconscious, a dream where he was a young Scotsman, Haki, taken as a slave by Viking raiders. He becomes a member of Leif Erickson’s expedition to Greenland & then on to Vinland, the almost mythical settlement on the coast of North America. The dream is so vivid that Ross is constantly thinking of it. In the dream, he’s accompanied by a young girl, Hekia, whom he equates with Alix. On the final leg of their journey home, they cross the Atlantic to Canada & then, down the coast of Massachusetts towards New York. Ross is suddenly convinced that he’s found the place the Vikings called Wondersward &, when they land to have a look, he recognizes everything, including a place that was special to Haki & Hekia. Alix begins to wonder whether Ross’s experience was just a dream or something more uncanny.

The story begins with one of Shute’s framing stories, a device he often used. Ross is on a stranded train in Europe & tells his story to a fellow traveller, a psychologist. Shute must have forgotten how he began the story because we never return to the stranded train & the viewpoint of the story isn’t just Ross’s which it should be if he’s telling his story as he experienced it. However, that didn’t bother me too much. I enjoyed the story very much – the early scenes in Oxford with Ross & Alix irritating each other while Lockwood is completely focussed on his research without any idea of what such a trip entails. I love novels set in the 1930s, with all the assumptions about class & privilege. Alix Lockwood looks down on Ross & her middle class assumptions about him & his abilities were typical of the period. It certainly sets up the combative relationship between Alix & Ross very well & contrasts with the slow dawning of respect that she feels for him when she realises how naive she & her father had been. I also loved Donald’s Aunt Janet, who had brought him up on her meagre earnings as a teacher. As always, Nevil Shute writes about the work of pilots & engineers with authority. Sometimes, I admit, the endless detail about fitting out a seaplane, filling the engine, changing the plugs, became a little mind-numbing, but the story was fascinating.

The scenes in the north reminded me a little of Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, a terrific ghost story that I listened to on audio read by Jeremy Northam. A young man is left as the only member of a scientific expedition to a remote station where something horrible happened in the past, something so dreadful that it left an enduring impression on the landscape & the atmosphere of the place. It was a story that left me with such a feeling of dread, I don’t think I could have read (or listened) to it at night.  I listened to An Old Captivity on audio too, read by Cameron Stewart. He did a good job narrating the story & his male voices were fine but Alix’s voice was dreadful. Still, the lure of the story kept me listening & I’m keen to go on reading more of Nevil Shute’s novels.

6 thoughts on “An Old Captivity – Nevil Shute

  1. I really enjoy this one as well, though I start to lose interest when Ross begins having those dreams. I enjoy stories with supernatural elements, particularly “overshadowings,” but for some reason this one doesn't work as well for me. But I do enjoy the organization of the trip, and its early days.


  2. I enjoy time travel novels so I liked the dream/reincarnation sequences. I find Shute soothing & the level of detail about work is always interesting.


  3. I listened to TFC on audio last year & really enjoyed it. The narrator was English but caught the Australian accents really well which was a definite plus for me! Great story too, it was one of my Top 10 reads last year.


  4. You're welcome, Margaret. I think it's the dated quality of his books that I enjoy. The attitudes to women & other races are sometimes patronising but they're of their time so I try to read them in that spirit. The dreamlike quality of this story was unusual.


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