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?