On the Beach by Nevil Shute
7 October, 2010
The last time I read anything by Nevil Shute was A Town Like Alice which I read as part of my GCSE History course almost twenty years ago. I wasn’t really enjoying studying the world wars as I wanted to read about the Tudor and Stuarts. But I was young then. I find I’m increasingly drawn more to human dramas and the human condition as I grow older and when I found out that On the Beach was the choice for this month’s book group (did I mention I’d joined my first book group?) I was apprehensive but rather intrigued. I didn’t really know what to expect. I was expecting something forlorn and tragic, and yes, On the Beach is both of those things but a lot more besides. In fact, as soon as I started reading the first few pages, I knew I liked it. It was surprisingly easy to read and, dare I say it, kind of sff. You might not think of Shute when you are looking for something sff to read, but this was it, a post-apocalyptic, alternative historical fiction. As Shute had written a contemporary novel, it’s not accurate to call it historical fiction, rather more dystopian but there you go. It certainly wasn’t something I expected. In fact, I was expecting to read about post-WWII life in Australia until I was several pages in and it dawned on me that he was talking about WWIII!
First published in 1957, On the Beach is set in 1963 sometime after WWIII. With post-WWII politics and a mad scramble for land and resources, China, Russia, the US and UK all managed to get their wires crossed and dropped atomic, nuclear and cobalt bombs resulting in the destruction of the northern hemisphere. Life still survives in the southern hemisphere but it’s only a matter of time before the radioactive fallout will blow south slowly poisoning and killing every living thing. This is the story of a group of Australians and a lone American submarine commander trying to carry on. It may sound bleak, but Shute manages to do the unthinkable and write a novel that is warm but with hope slowly dripping away.
Peter Holmes is a young naval officer with a wife and baby who is given the job of liaison officer on board Commander Dwight Towers USS Scorpion. Towers’ submarine is only one of two surviving American subs currently active in the southern hemisphere. They are sent on a number of missions to find the radioactive levels north of Australia to ascertain the speed at which the fallout is travelling south. Before their missions, Towers is invited to stay with the Holmeses where he meets Moira Davidson, a young woman at a loose end, drinking way too much and partying to numb the fear and boredom. Work has ceased and supplies are scant. What Shute does wonderfully is to show that for most ordinary people, the only way of keeping sane is by keeping busy. It’s heartbreaking how diligently the Holmeses tend to their garden, planting seeds for the following year when there is minimal chance that they will be alive to see them grow. And Moira’s father, working his land and feeding his livestock. Commander Towers, dreaming of his wife and two kids, is slowly drawn to Moira and the two build a fragile friendship that will sustain them in what remains of the world.
I was expecting, no hoping, that there would be some reprieve. The discovery that the radioactive fallout had dissipated, that there were people alive in the northern hemisphere, that Commander Towers would be re-united with his family. But as you read, you slowly come to realise, just as the characters in the novel that the end, the real end of the world, is coming. And it doesn’t come with a bang. It creeps up on you, and before you know it, you’ve contracted radiation poisoning, you vomit, you have diaorrhea, fever and then just die. Pills are given out free for those at the end. Shute tackles a painful and frankly very scary scenario and he does it with dignity, compassion and humour. I really liked this book and it’s a powerful testament to the destructive nature of war and weapons but told without all the shock tactics you find in modern novels and films. But it leaves you with a sense of horror and the senseless of war.
I read this for my book group The Riverside Readers and an interesting point that was brought up at the discussion was the almost flat prose and rigid characterisation which some didn’t warm to. I felt that the characters were unable to break free from their persona precisely because they were in denial of what was to come. If they did, they would break. However there were two chilling episodes in which you can see them lose control which brings the inevitability of their fate closer to home.
I’ve definitely become a fan of Nevil Shute’s work and look forward to reading more of his novels in future. When I have some time, that is!