Wednesday, May 22, 2019

On the Beach: Nevil Shute

About On the Beach, from the back of my paperback edition:
Nevil Shute’s most powerful novel—a bestseller for decades after its 1957 publication—is an unforgettable vision of a post-apocalyptic world.
After a nuclear World War III has destroyed most of the globe, the few remaining survivors in southern Australia await the radioactive cloud that is heading their way and bringing certain death to everyone in its path. Among them is an American submarine captain struggling to resist the knowledge that his wife and children in the United States must be dead. Then a faint Morse code signal is picked up, transmitting from somewhere near Seattle, and Commander Towers must lead his submarine crew on a bleak tour of the ruined world in a desperate search for signs of life. Both terrifying and intensely moving, On the Beach is a remarkably convincing portrait of how ordinary people might face the most unimaginable nightmare.


I enjoy reading apocalyptic fiction. There are many different takes on that genre and I enjoy all of them. This one was especially interesting because of when it was written, at a time when the fears of the cold war were prevalent. I was a child when it was written and a teenager during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I don't have specific memories of the tensions of that time, just general impressions.

The story centers around several men who are assigned to the last functioning American nuclear submarine, the USS Scorpion: the captain, Dwight Towers; the Australian liaison officer, Peter Holmes; and an Australian scientist, John Osborne, assigned to monitor and research the radiation levels. The men are sent out on cruises to check out areas around the United States and further to the north. The novel tells us about these trips but also about their lives when they return to Melbourne, where the submarine is based.


Particular attention is paid to Dwight Towers and his friendship with Moira Davidson, a friend of Peter Holmes and his wife Mary. Moira is in her early twenties and is bitter about missing the experience of marriage and having children and the opportunity to see more of the world. Dwight had a wife and two children in the US and knows that he will never see them again, but sometimes his actions belie this, as he looks for gifts for them.

There is a focus on the somewhat mundane, daily activities of the characters as they continue on with their lives as if they will be around later when the garden that they are planting has bloomed. It may be surprising to think that people would continue in their normal lives, but I think it emphasizes that sometimes it is the small things we do in life that are most important.

The book is a look at how people might handle this impending doom and carry on their daily lives until the end. I like that the story is told simply, without a lot of details about what has happened on other continents. I also liked the combination of some technological aspects of how the situation was addressed, versus the daily lives of the people affected. Some people knew that the end would come but chose to live as they had before. Others were in denial. And a few followed up on dreams that they had, while still carrying on in their jobs.

Reading this story did not affect me emotionally as much as I expected. I read it as one look at what could happen, and it made me think afterwards about how a family with younger children would handle the approaching end of life. It does address families and individuals at different stages of life, taking a deeper look at people in their 20s, 30s, or 40s and what they would miss because of this disaster. I found it more thought-provoking than sad.

In reading about this book and the author, I discovered that Nevil Shute was an aeronautical engineer and that some of his books used that knowledge as a part of the story. I will be looking for some more of his books to read. Suggestions are welcome.

See these reviews, at Pining for the West, Brona's Books, and My Reader's Block.

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Publisher:   Vintage International, 2010 (orig. pub. 1957)
Length:       312 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Melbourne, Australia
Genre:       Apocalyptic Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

18 comments:

  1. This one's considered a classic in apocalyptic fiction, Tracy, as you know, and I'm glad you enjoyed it. Shute certainly gave us an awful lot to think about in the novel. And, even though the exact fears he wrote of haven't come to pass (at least, not yet in our lives), he does address some issues (in my opinion, anyway), that we are still facing.

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    1. Some people find On the Beach too depressing to read it during times like this, Margot. I really enjoyed the book and thinking about it afterward. I like the way Shute writes.

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  2. I commented just yesterday, on another blog, that I wasn't much for apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic novels, but had read and enjoyed this one, and here it is. I read it when I was in high school, about 1960, so my viewpoint was a cold war one, and would probably think differently about it if reread today. A very nice review. Thank you, Tracy.

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    1. Thanks, Rick. I don't know why I haven't this book before, but I did enjoy it a lot. And I think I would like some of his other novels.

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  3. Not a massive fan of apocalyptic fiction TBH. I think I'll give this a miss thanks.

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    1. I can understand that, Col. The end of the world (or some version of that) is a difficult subject.

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  4. This one terrified me as a kid. Now that real life is the scariest thing I wonder if it would.

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    1. I can imagine the book would be terrifying for a child, Patti. I think I blocked out a lot of my reactions to horrible events when I was in my preteen and teen years. I remember very little of the racial tensions in Birmingham when I was a teenager, yet they must have affected me at the time.

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  5. Never read it, Tracy. The movie was enuf. Like the Col. I'm not a fan of apocalyptic stories--other than to joke about zombies, killer wasps, giant spider invasions, and such. Maybe it's like Patti says, that real life is becoming the more immediate nightmare. But I might give Shute a look. I prefer speculative fiction by writers with science backgrounds, like Fred Hoyle.

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    1. I don't know much about Shute's other fiction, but I am definitely going to try it out, Mathew.

      I have not seen the movie adaptation of On the Beach. We would like to watch it.

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  6. Thanks for the mention. You might like to try The Chequer Board next, A Town Like Alice or No Highway.

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    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Katrina. I have heard of A Town Like Alice; your other suggestions are new to me. I will look into them more.

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    2. I second A Town Like Alice (there's also a great tv series from the early 80's to check out too).

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    3. Thanks, Brona, I am always interested in adaptations of books I read.

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  7. I have enjoyed a lot of Neville Shute books, but did not want to read this one - like many of your commentators, not a fan of apocalyptic fiction. but very glad to see a character called Moira! There aren't many of them in books...

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    1. I was surprised to see the name Moira. You are right, it is not used often in books. I don't know exactly why I like apocalyptic fiction, but I do like the different ways it is interpreted. This one is very serious, but I did not find it depressing.

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  8. I might suggest The Pied Piper, Beyond the Black Stump, and A Town Like Alice.

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    1. Thanks, Debbie. I will be looking for copies of those books.

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