On The Beach – Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute is an author that I have always wanted to read, so when Polly of Novel Insights chose ‘On The Beach’ as the latest book for the Riverside Readers book group I was really pleased. However as soon as I learnt it featured two of my least favourite things in books, submarines (or boats) and nuclear apocalypse which has freaked me out since childhood, I wasn’t quite so sure. Unusual then that it’s possibly one of the most incredible, not perfect but incredible, reading experiences I have had in quite some time.

In an alternative 1963, bear in mind this book was originally published in 1957, a nuclear war has left nothing much of the northern hemisphere and the radiation fall out is heading south to Australia where ‘On The Beach’ is set and where the last of earths survivors are living in a mixture of denial and hope. To say all this is not to spoil the story as its pretty much spelt out to you in the first 40 pages (and of course in the blurb), in fact really you could say this story is the tale of the end of humanity, unless of course there is some major miracle – which of course I wont tell you if there is or not as you need to read this book if you haven’t.

In Australia, in the city of Melbourne and its surrounding areas, we meet Peter Holmes his wife Mary and baby Jennifer. Peter becomes a worker on a submarine set to find any signs of survival in on last major mission under its American captain Dwight Towers who he invites for the weekend when they start working together. Mary invites her friend Moira with the sole idea of her entertaining Dwight a mission it seems Moira is more than happy to undertake. From this point we follow these four characters and those close to them as the radiation draws nearer and nearer.

Nevil Shute has created possibly one of the most brilliant ‘tart with a heart’ heroines in Moira, who from her first drunken arrival on the pages (and soon followed up with a hilarious ‘accidental’ bra loosing moment which made me laugh out loud) promptly steals any scene that she is in. You could actually say to a degree it is the tales of Moira and Mary that in part make the book such a special read. I found the men rather one dimensional and a bit dull, rather like the scenes they had in the submarines, and this is where the book lost something a little for me.

I could never actually get into Peter’s thoughts and even Dwight, who has a very interesting story as he buys presents for his deceased family and still believes himself to be married (oh poor Moira), never seemed to quite walk of the page like Moira and Mary. Mary and her naïve denial actually had me laughing, which I am not sure is the intent, such as scenes where she fears that a cat may get in Jennifer’s cot and suffocate her and you the reader are thinking ‘forget the cat Mary, there’s nuclear fall out to consider’. I thought the characters made the book all the more real and readable, they felt like people you knew and could weirdly identify with them which of course led you to the question and impact that underlies this book ‘just what would you do at the end of the world?’ oh it gives me the creeps just thinking about it.

I did have two more minor quibbles the first was that I couldn’t actually believe everyone would carry on going to work and living daily life as normal without freaking out after a nuclear war, which is the depiction that Shute seemed to create. Not one character seemed to have gone completely barmy or had a breakdown which seemed odd. I will also say around page 190ish I got a tiny bit bored as those pesky submarines got a little samey, but maybe that was the intention and designed to add to the build up as the book comes to an end. Of which I shall say no more about and simply say… read this book.

I know I have picked a few holes in it but I still ended up coming away from ‘On The Beach’ feeling very emotional and its made me do quite a lot of reflecting and thinking which all the best books should do. It’s one of those books that will stick with you for days and days, I am sure I will be mulling this book and the question it raises over for weeks and weeks to come. Like I said before ‘On The Beach’ is not the perfect book but it’s an incredible one. 8.5/10 (The submarines didn’t ruin the book but they slowed it down along with their inhabitants.)

Have you read ‘On The Beach’? What was your reaction to it and what impact has it left on you? Which other post-apocalyptic books have you read that have had a lasting effect on you? I still can’t get images from ‘Children of the Dust’ which I read at school from my head, that book freaked me out so much. I am definitely going to be reading much more Shute, which of his other novels can you recommend I turn to and why?



Filed under Book Group, Nevil Shute, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

24 responses to “On The Beach – Nevil Shute

  1. Annabel

    When I was a teenager I read all Nevil Shute’s novels, and On the Beach was a standout one even then. However I haven’t re-read any of them and thirty years on I think it’s time. This or A Town Like Alice would be the ones I’d probably choose, although I have fond memories of Pied Piper set in occupied France too.

    • I really fancy A Town Like Alice but want the dition that I really remember seeing on my Grans bookshelves as a child, so that might be when I go back to buying books again in the spring, I am loving old editions of books at the moment.

  2. Definitely A Town Like Alice.

  3. I am old enough to have read this book soon after it was published. I have never forgotten it and after your excellent review I shall read it again. In those days we used to dream about nuclear attack so the subject matter was very real. I remember the last scene vividly. I have just reread The death of grass by John Christopher. Similar period and theme in some way. My daughter put it on her Kindle and suggested I read it. I would love to know your reaction to that.

    • I can imagine reading this at the time of it coming out I would be really haunted by it as it must have seemed so possible then. Of course it is still possible now I guess we never know.

      The Death of Grass, I havent heard of that book before I shall go and look it up.

  4. I think I have said this a million times in the blogosphere, but I first read this in high school in the very nuclear tense 1980s and I cried like a baby for the final 30 pages. I could barely read the print through the tears. It is that whole knowing you are going to die thing that gets to me. (Which is why AIDS related books from the late 80s and early 90s had the same effect on me.)

    Anyhoo, I have read a lot of Shute since then and I love his books. I think some of the submarine boredom you describe is the equivalent of cozy detail for straight guys.

    Now Simon, you need to rent the film of thie book. The young Tony Perkins (of Psycho fame) stars in it and he is handsome as heck in a squeaky clean sort of way.

    • I watched the film with Polly of Novel Insights the other night and I didnt really gel with it too much to be honest, we found ourselves chatting instead.

      I will read more Shute because as I have had more time away from this book the better I have thought it is.

  5. I haven’t read the book but have seen the movie twice.

    Peter was a Lt. in the Australian Navy. Gasoline (petrol) was rationed so people used horses for transportation.

    The Aussies were rather calm also. I would be freaking out at this point.

    The quibble that I have with the movie is that the Australians are all US actors!

  6. Deb

    Simon, you said–

    “I did have two more minor quibbles the first was that I couldn’t actually believe everyone would carry on going to work and living daily life as normal without freaking out after a nuclear war, which is the depiction that Shute seemed to create. Not one character seemed to have gone completely barmy or had a breakdown which seemed odd.”

    A good observation, but I think you’re forgetting that ON THE BEACH was written when the “stiff upper lip” and “stay calm and carry on” attitude was prevalent. I suppose it was alright for a woman to fall to pieces, but if a man did, he was quickly hustled to the back of the bus, so to speak.

    • Thats a very good point Deb and one I hadnt really taken into consideration until your comment and some of the comments at book group (I wrote this and scheduled it before I left and made a few tweaks here and there after, thats one I forgot) I could understand some people keeping calm and carrying on… but everyone?

  7. I read this in high school in the late 70’s and literally had bad dreams for weeks after finishing it. And also cried at the end.

    I agree with the previous comments that the period the novel was definitely influenced the behavior of the characters.

    It is a good read but I did like A Town Like Alice better although Alice didn’t inspire any dreams.


  8. Bet

    Miss Jean Paget from A Town Like Alice is one of my all-time favorite heroines. I first read this book when I was in my twenties and thought, “I wish I had her pluck and determination and positive attitude!” And the BBC did a great mini-series based on it,too.

    I recently read Requiem for a Wren (which is called The Breaking Wave on my side of the pond) and found it… forgettable. I haven’t read On the Beach.

  9. novelinsights

    I’m so glad, that you are glad… that you read it! I hope that you read A Town Like Alice at some point as that is fabulous and doesn’t have submarines.

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  12. JJJJJJ

    I read this book just now, I cant stop obsessing over it, hence why a google search led me here. No book has had that affect on me before. Makes me wish the world didn’t exist

  13. mumsnetsuffolkandnorfolk

    I read an excerpt from this book during my Fathers funeral. He was a bit of an old git but he did introduce me to some varied and interesting books. I have to be thankful, at least, for that.

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