Book Review: On the Beach by Nevil Shute

On the Beach – Nevil Shute (Vintage International, 2005)

On the Beach had long been on my TBR list. Choosing it now in the midst of a global pandemic added a strange layer to my reading.

The story takes place in Australia, a few months after a brief global war has destroyed the planet. Atomic and cobalt bombs set off around the world have led to the deaths of millions by radiation poisoning. North America, Europe, and Asia are wiped out and the radiation is steadily creeping toward the Southern Hemisphere. In Australia, the population knows that they have approximately six months to live and so the novel is a fascinating study into human nature and what it might be like to live at the end of the world. The world has ended with a bang but these characters are there to witness the last whimpers.

We have Peter and Mary, a young couple with a baby daughter, attempting to live their lives as normally as possible. They go so far as planning out their garden for the next spring, a season they will never live to see. It’s their way of coping with a death that is out of their control.

Mary looked at her gratefully. “Well, that’s what I think. I mean, I couldn’t bear to – to just stop doing things and do noting. You might as well die now and get it over.”

Moira nodded. “If what they say is right, we’re none of us going to have time to do all that we planned to do. But we can keep on doing it as long as we can.”

It’s heartbreaking and a little inspiring to see them planning for their future until the very last moment.

Moira is a friend of theirs who takes a more nihilistic approach to the end of the world. She drinks heavily and indulges herself in whatever way she chooses at the moment, believing her choices no longer matter. Peter is a naval officer, assigned as a liaison officer to an American submarine that has ended up stuck in Melbourne. Peter invites the American captain, Dwight, home for a weekend and invites Moira along to entertain him, worried that Dwight will be saddened at the sight of ordinary home life. Dwight and Moira strike up an unexpected friendship that begins to change the way Moira lives out her last few months.

Dwight is an interesting character. An American from the East Coast, he has a wife and two children that are, undoubtedly, dead from radiation. In order to function however, he continues to think of them as alive and waiting for his return in September. (This is the estimated date of the radiation poisoning reaching Melbourne.) He even goes so far as carefully choosing out presents to bring home to them. He is a by-the-book leader, following the rules strictly until the very end because he believes in the structures of society and he wants to be reunited with his family knowing he did everything right.

While the crew of the submarine, including Peter and Dwight, do make some exploratory missions into the radioactive zones, including one where they venture as far as Seattle to investigate a radio signal, this is not where the real action of the novel exists. If you read On the Beach expecting an exciting, apocalyptic story, you’ll likely be disappointed. This is a novel about people and about the ways they might react, knowing the world ends. Despite the characters being Australian and American it had a very stiff-upper-lip British feel to me. There is drunkenness in the street and people stop going to work but for the most part society continues to function normally. There doesn’t seem to be a significant increase in looting or violence. Looking at the world as it is around me today, I wonder if this is a realistic portrayal or idealism on Shute’s part.

That said, as we are currently living through a time like no other, I found a lot in the novel to recognize. People do keep living their lives in the midst of turmoil. We do plan for the future, even when that future is uncertain. We are capable of great good in the midst of pain. I don’t know if Shute’s version is accurate but it’s one I would want to aspire to.

She said furiously, “Don’t you know?”

“No, I don’t,” he replied. Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of the world before.”

15 thoughts on “Book Review: On the Beach by Nevil Shute”

  1. Reading it a few months ago before the pandemic, I wondered even then if we would behave with as much dignity in similar circumsances. In some ways I’ve been impressed by our response and in other ways deeply depressed. I do wonder if people back then would have acted so differently to us, and I suspect they might. Society was much more important than the individual back then, and we’d all just come through the war so were used to suffering and discipline. I often wonder if the decadent, rather hedonistic, west could actually fight a war now as we did in the ’40s. I hope never to find out…

    1. That’s an interesting point and one I hadn’t considered. That Shute wrote the book coming out of a world war where people had come together for the greater good. In many ways, I think we’re seeing that in our worldwide lockdowns but of course there are dissenters and selfish people. I do have a hard time believing there wouldn’t be more violence than what Shute portrays.

      Locally, our provincial health officer (who is the one making the decisions around COVID-19 and lockdowns etc here) has said that they have found the best way to get people to comply with regulations is not law enforcement or threat of punishment but to remind people that their actions can help others and are protecting those around them. I found that quite inspiring.

    2. Yes, that’s how they’ve been trying to get us all to wear masks here – for the protection of others rather than ourselves. If my supermarket is anything to go by (the only place I’m allowed to go!), the response is patchy…

    3. I’d say about a third of people around here are wearing masks in stores. And at least half of them move them around and touch them while wearing them. The message around masks here has been very inconsistent. It’s basically, You don’t have to wear them but maybe you should except it probably won’t make a difference anyway.

  2. Although I don’t drink and have never done drugs in my life, I get the feeling I’d be the lady seeking out some kind of psychedelics if we had six months to go. I’m not sure this would be the right book for me right now, but I can see from your review what a lot of tenderness this book has.

    1. I have a feeling I would be Mary – maybe not gardening, but insisting on living my normal life as if nothing had changed. Shute doesn’t do a great job of portraying Peter and Mary as parents (he consistently refers to the baby as “it”) but he does show some of the heartbreak decisions they have to make at the end. In a strange way, it’s an inspiring book but I understand not wanting to read it right now.

    2. Wait, the narrator calls the baby “it,” or the father does? I could understand the father slipping because he’s trying to distance himself from this child that will die, but not the narrator. That’s odd.

    3. The third person narrator does. The only thing I can guess is that Shute wasn’t really a family man but wikipedia tells me he had 2 daughters!

    1. It’s both heartbreaking and hopeful. It’s a situation you hope we’ll never see but if we do, I hope we all respond the way these characters do.

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