I had not heard of On the Beach, by Nevil Shute prior to reading for book group recently; I had heard of one of his other novels, A Town Like Alice, but never heard of the author – I shall definitely be reading more works by Mr Shute. We decided to read On the Beach after one of our members suggested we should read it. She had indeed read it before, but several years ago, and fancied re-reading the book to compare how she remembered the book against her twenty year older self. I am quite happy to reveal early on in this review that it was fantastic!
On the Beach is a simple novel about a small group of people living in Melbourne; the world has experienced a catastrophic nuclear war which as killed the entire population of the Northern Hemisphere. The fallout from this global conflict is drifting slowly South, encompassing everything in its path – and even though the radiation levels will subside after a relatively short period of time (a matter of a few years) radiation sickness and death is inevitable for the entire human race and indeed all fauna on the planet. The novel picks up this story about 18 months after the conflict but 6 months before Southern Australia is engulfed by this poisonous death sentence. The story follows a few different characters and how they are each trying to cope with the knowledge of their untimely demise. There is an American submarine commander (Dwight Towers), along with his crew, most likely the last American citizens alive; an Australian couple (Peter & Mary Holmes) with a very young baby, he also serves in the Navy and is part of the final submariner crew sent on reconnaissance missions to the Northern Hemisphere; a young Australian woman (Moira Davidson) attempting to come to terms with the situation she is in; and a young Australian professor (John Osborne) with a penchant for fast cars. These somewhat unlikely friends are the focus of the novel.
Now, this may all sound a little depressing and sad – and indeed you’d be right to think this; however, the tone of the novel and the way in which the characters behave is strangely uplifting. At first I was wholly unsure about how these characters and all those people surrounding them were acting. Everything seemed too civilised, order had remained throughout, and people were still engaging as a normal society. Yes, many people were consuming alcohol more recklessly, and as the book progresses some social niceties are set aside, yet there is never a decline of moral values amongst the people and surprisingly no sense of panic. This is a population that to some extent have come to terms with their fate or for some in denial of their reality. Despite my initial uncertainty I came around to this idea of social normality – these people had had a long time to get used to the situation, there could not be a mass panic devolving to hysteria as they all had too long to live. If the population had a few weeks to live rather than 2 years, this situation would be far different. This took me completely by surprise and it was perfectly delivered.
Another reason that I enjoyed On the Beach so much was that it was unlike any other novel I had ever read. You could say that this is a post-apocalyptic novel, but it isn’t quite so – these characters are awaiting their apocalypse (which will not be a complete destruction that we associate with nuclear war), whilst the rest of the world has already experienced it. Moira’s character is particularly good and the relationship she builds with Commander Towers is beautiful and deeply moving before the story ends.
Overall On the Beach is tragic and terribly sad, yet compelling in a way that not many novels achieve. The characters are so very well rounded and brilliantly written; I found myself forgetting the fiction, really believing in their lives and the trial they were facing. When we discussed the book at book group it struck me how easily everyone, including myself, talked about the book and particularly the characters as though they were real people. The novel promoted a very lengthy discussion which is unusual for a book that was universally liked. I would urge you to read this fine novel – it is likely to make you cry; it is likely to harbour a small sense of hopelessness within you for you cannot help these people; but, you will (I hope) love the characters and how they act; you will (I hope) love the relationships they forge in their final days; and you will (I hope) love this beautiful book…
If you have read On the Beach you may like:
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy (probably the finest book I have ever read)
- The Death of Grass by John Christopher
- Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard