Sunday, August 15, 2010

Dystopia Challenge Review #7: On the Beach by Nevil Shute

A short, devastating nuclear war has obliterated much of the northern hemisphere. The atmosphere is filled with radioactive dust, and those who didn't perish when one of the 5000 nuclear bombs were dropped on the major cities of the world are now dead of radiation sickness. Those below the equator won't, it seems, be spared for much longer; the radiation is travelling south. Darwin and Cairns are already out. The US Navy, if a handful of officers and meagre crew can be called a navy, has one functional ship left at its disposal: the submarine USS Scorpion. Working with the Australians, the commander of the sub, Dwight Towers, sets out to investigate the extent of the radiation, whether it is subsiding, and the origins of a strange, persistent radio signal emanating from Seattle.

On the Beach was written in 1957 and the first thing I noted about the book is that it is decidedly from another era. I have read plenty of books written in all decades of the twentieth century, but I have never been struck by this sort of otherness in quite the same way before. Shute was born in 1899 and lived through two world wars and the Great Depression. He also experienced the strife in Ireland first hand. Nevil, if I may call him that (I feel like I know him so well after reading just one of his books) and I didn't get along so well at first. The characters, the way they talk to each other, the way they behave, is just so dated. I'm not talking about being rankled by gender issues either. There are one or two moments where I was pursing my lips about something or other, but On the Beach is a product of its time, after all, and I was pleased to find Shute doesn't suffer from a fatal case of misogyny. In fact, he writes female characters with much sensitivity. This is even more evident in the only other of Shute's works I am familiar with, the 50s film adaptation of A Town Like Alice, one of my all-time favourite films about a young woman who's trapped in Singapore during the Japanese invasion.

No, it wasn't gender issues making me cringe; what I found difficult to grasp at first was the stiff-upper-lip mentality that just about every character had when faced with the impending apocalypse. Not only their mentality, but the general behaviour of society. I mean, the top half of Australia has been blanketed in radioactive dust, and the trams are still running in Melbourne? Waiters are still waiting on tables? You can book a room in the mountains and go fishing? I had an enormous rant to my father last year at how absolutely ridiculous I found the film--of which I only watched half and turned off in disgust. "What ho! We'll never have time to finish all this ruddy port. Damnation!" etc etc etc. He pointed out that it was written from an entirely different perspective than the one I'm living today. I haven't recently lived through a world war and been faced with my or my loved ones imminent death, the possible invasion of my country, the bombing of Darwin. That "keep calm and carry on" mentality is all-pervasive in On the Beach. It rankled at first, but by the end of the book I found I cherished it. Though it is a little idealised. I doubt that even in 1957 Melburnians would have dealt with the apocalypse with such dignity and good behaviour.

There are four central characters: Commander Dwight Towers, a sweet American who has lost not only his family, but a whole country he can never return to; Moira Davidson, a somewhat drunken and aimless Australian girl; Peter Holmes, the liason officer appointed to the Scorpian to work with Towers; and his wife Mary who, entirely believably, is in a total state of denial about the threat of radiation sickness. There is something infinitely charming about both Towers and Holmes. I find myself wanting to don a wiggle skirt and take them both dancing. How handsome they would look in their uniforms! I'm going quite gooey just thinking about it. And of course I identified with Moira. She is written with much humour and affection and I probably would have reacted to the apocalypse just like her. Parties! brandy! and carrying on all night long.

On the Beach is on the one hand an extremely emotional book and also completely understated. Shute, the devious man, doesn't overtly try and pull your heart strings. We're shown what a character is doing and how they react, and then we're pulled away into the next scene before things can get overwhelming. As a result the story is a little difficult to get into, but by about halfway through I was completely invested in all the characters. It almost felt like Shute tricked me into letting down my guard. I was fooled into thinking that he wasn't going to make me face anything truly awful; that as soon as things reached a certain point I would be whisked away to something more pleasant.

How wrong I was. I was thoroughly devastated by this book. I thought nothing could top the horror and sadness I felt after reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy about this time last year. On the Beach has topped it. Shute had me in floods of tears on a sunny Saturday morning as I finished it. Recommending this book to anyone almost seems a bit mean, but you must read it.

On the Beach has fantastic exploration scenes on the submarine too, and the most believable account of a devastating nuclear war I have ever read. I never really understood how one could get going. Surely it would be suicide to initiate one. Well yes, it is, obviously. But, as Shute describes, it wouldn't be impossible. I'm rather surprised now that I've read this book that it didn't happen. No wonder the Cold War spawned so many nuclear holocaust books.

When I finished this book I was struck with the conviction that it must have done some good in the world. From Goodreads:

On the Beach was the first American-made film publicly shown in the Soviet Union, and may have influenced American public opinion towards support of the atmospheric test ban treaty.

I urge you not to watch the film--at least not until you've read the book. I am infinitely grateful that I turned the film off and didn't know what was going to happen in the end.

There are also these quaint scenes of Australiana in this book, some of which I was familiar with and some that I had never heard of. Apparently, parties in Australia end with the hostess bringing around tea and scones! Funny, I thought they ended when the beer ran out. It was a sheer delight to read a book set in my home city--and a dystopian one to boot. The trams! Shopping at Myer. The Grand Prix in Albert Park. It's still held there today--though it ended up being held in Tooradin in On the Beach.

It is a shame that Nevil Shute's work isn't more popular these days. I don't think I've ever seen his books in stores, but now I want to buy his entire back catalogue--and get around in pin-curled hair, white gloves and full skirted dresses. I have little doubt that On the Beach will be my favourite book of this year's Dystopia Challenge.


  1. Sounds like a good one for me to pick up for Dystopian February!

  2. Oh goodness, I know just what you mean about this is so very good, and so very devestating....

    My favorite Shute is A Town Like Alice--have you ever read that one?

  3. This sounds amazing. . like it will break my heart into pieces in that way that makes you unable to cry.
    It's amazing that the author is really able to get across that sense of otherness, as you call it - I'll definitely be checking this books out.

  4. I have only read A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. Sounds like I really need to get hold of this one to read!

  5. Definitely Lenore!

    Charlotte, I've only seen the film but I must read the book. I cried buckets.

    Brizmus, oh, you'll cry. Trust me.

    Marg definitely pick it up!

  6. Oh boy! I have EVERY Shute book (including his autobiography) - something for you to read at Christmas Rhiannon!!!

    Shute is one of my favourite authors - not only is he a sensitive writer of great stories, but he is an Aeronautical Engineer (many of his stories involve aviation in small or large ways). However, as with all literature, the context from which the author writes is important in terms of understanding the work. Shute's context is principally that of WW2 and its aftermath. He did write stories before WW2, but (with one exception) they are clearly early works.

    Several of Shute's novels will leave you in tears (sometimes of joy), but none do so without a redemptive cloud on the horizon as happens with "On the Beach".

    I grew up in an England dotted with bomb sites courtesy of the Luftwaffe and in the shadow of nuclear destruction. As a kid, I recall designing nuclear fallout shelters, I suppose as an escape from the sabre rattling (of both sides). Shute's world in "On the Beach" is of that time and tells of a future we all too nearly had.

    The ending is deliberately bleak - it is Shute enjoining his readers to "rage against the falling of the night".

    My favourite Shute is one of "Pastoral" (a love story set in the carnage of an RAF bomber base in 1943), "Landfall" (a love story set in RAF coastal command, 1940) or "The Far Country" - set in London, Melbourne and country Victoria in about 1949 (and again, a love story.

  7. This sounds like an excellent book, but I'm not sure if I'm brave enough to read it!

    It's even available as an ebook to make things easier. Whatever shall I do?

  8. Re : the film of 'On The Beach'. Sophia Loren did not gain any friends in Melbourne where part of the film was shot. She is reported to have said that she could think of no better place to make a film about the end of the world!
    I liked Shute's No Highway about air crashes caused by design faults.