Book Review: Trustee from the Toolroom – by Nevil Shute

TrusteeFromTheToolroomTrustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute is the most delightful novel I have read in a very long time. Spending time with the book, letting the paragraphs slide by, was pure joy, every minute of it. I just didn’t want it to end.

Shute died in 1960 and the book was published posthumously later that year. I must admit I had never read another Shute book, never heard of the author and I would certainly not have come across this one had it not been for a recommendation by a friend and colleague.

Trustee from the Toolroom is the story of Keith Stewart, a frumpy British engineer and journalist who has carved out a meager business building model engineering projects and writing about them in a niche magazine called the Miniature Mechanic. He loves what he does, and he and his wife live childless and seemingly content. They have just enough to get by and they are happy with their modest lives.

Keith’s wife’s sister Jo is married to a retired British naval officer. The two have one young daughter. They decide to sail in their own boat from England to the Pacific, with the goal of establishing themselves in Vancouver. During the journey, they leave their daughter with the Stewarts. They intend to have her flown over after they arrive in Vancouver some five months later.

A hurricane in the middle of the South Pacific changes everything, and Keith faces the conflicts of deciding to maintain his small and safe existence in an English village, or risk everything to recover the nest egg his in-laws have put aside for their daughter, making him the trustee. In the end, Keith chooses the path of adventure and courage.

This book is a novel without any villain or even any intense conflict. It simply tells the story, in great detail, of how Keith lives and eventually embarks on an exotic trip across half the globe on a very unlikely mission. We think we know the eventual outcome but the suspense comes from wanting to know how he accomplishes it, step by step.

Shute is an excellent story-teller. All the main characters are very likeable and honorable. Everyone seems to do the right thing all the time. It’s almost like a fairy tale, except there is no bad guy. The challenges in the story are simply life’s obstacles and accidental misfortunes.

A story like that just makes you feel good reading it, and everyone should have that experience once in a while.

Rating: **** (out of 4)

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Trustee from the Toolroom – by Nevil Shute

  1. Ray Cullen

    Hi Norbert—as you obviously enjoyed Trustee from the Toolroom, perhaps another of Neville Shute’s books–” No Highway” (later filmed as No Highway In the Sky–staring Jimmy Stewart) might also appeal.
    Shute, who was himself an aircraft engineer, tells the story of an engineer who becomes aware of “premature” metal fatigue causing catastrophic effects in airplanes.
    Much of the story centers around the engineer’s “lone voice” as he attempts to convince others of the inherent dangers. Shute also explores themes of our propensity to judge others,based upon physical appearance—or even the holding of viewpoints which differ from the “mainstream”.
    Another Shute novel which might appeal, is On the Beach. This tells the story of several disparate characters who all face their own imminent demise, as radiation from a nuclear exchange in the Northern hemisphere gradually drifts towards the last remaining centers of civilisation—–in Australia.
    Notwithstanding the bleak theme of the book, Shute still manages to inject some of the laconic humor of Australia into this work,perhaps something the author had enjoyed, after moving here (to Australia) some years prior to writing the book.
    On the Beach was later fimed in Melbourne (Australia) in 1959—-starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, & Fred Astaire—–& again in 2000. It addresses such issues as the pointlessness of weapons which are so destructive as to destroy ALL life——& the consequent loss of ALL “political rationalisation” for such monstrous creations,when no one remains to “believe” in same–!!!!
    A personal favorite amongst Shute’s work,however, is ” A Town Like Alice”. Again, Shute wrote of tumultuous events involving both his country of birth (England) & his “adopted” Australia—–yet the underlying themes are “universal” & common to people everywhere.
    Much of the story takes place following the Japanese invasion of Malaya during WW2, & portrays the travails of POW’s in utterly miserable circumstances.
    Despite such a context,or perhaps BECAUSE of same, Shute reminds us through little incidents of small kindnesses, & common human decency amidst he horrors of war, that life is NOT so starkly “black & white” (or good & “evil” ) —a view to which we are often only too ready to subscribe—!!!!
    Another central tenet of the book is the strength of the human spirit, & our capacity as human beings,to survive the most horrendous of circumstances—–& despite such horrors, to actually thrive in spite of same–!!
    Because this is SO important to Shute’s “A Town Like Alice”, it seems to me, to be “unfortunate” that the FILM (here in Australia,of the same name as the book) was,in the U.S. renamed, “The Rape of Malaya”.
    This latter title seems to focus solely on the “HORROR” of the story–& the historical events upon which THIS part of Shute’s story is based. Shute’s story however, finds its REAL “wonder” NOT only in the day-by-day surviving of incredible hardships of warfare,but rather in what happens AFTER the events which the (U.S.) title accurately portrays as, “The Rape of Malaya”—!!
    For my “U.S. friends”, the “Alice” of Shute’s original title refers to the Australian outback town of Alice Springs—-locally referred to as “the Alice”—or simply, “Alice”.
    It is what takes place HERE, in Alice Springs (Australia) AFTER the war–(& which could not have occurred WITHOUT the suffering OF the earlier wartime events) which elevates Shute’s work from simply an interesting grittily heroic story,to a true celebration of all that is great & good about people everywhere-!!
    What unfolds in A Town (called) “Alice” is a portrayal by an author at the height of his powers, of the WONDER that is life–!! As such, it is a fine example of why we read good books–!!!
    *** I hope you & your readers may find some of the enjoyment to which I have alluded above, in these & other works by Neville Shute. Regards from “down under”—-Ray.

      1. Ray Cullen

        Hi again Norbert—-as we say in Australia—-“no worries”–!!! (roughly equivalent to your “no problems”–??!!)
        I’m happy for you to post my comments—& hope that perhaps someone “out there” enjoys some more Neville Shute books–!!! Cheers–!!!—-Ray

  2. Surprised you haven’t heard of Shute: A Town Like Alice (in 1956). The last was serialised for Australian television in 1981. Riveting series, same with book.

    @Ray — I have long admired Australian filmography — your films are wonderfully quirky and heart-felt. I would recommend esp. Kenny or Muriel’s Wedding.
    That’s just a start — tip of iceburg.

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