The Reading Room

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

Review of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach…..

When Nevil Shute wrote On the Beach in 1957 the world was witnessing the onset of a nuclear arms race during a Cold War period in which the prospect of a nuclear Armageddon was a very real and terrifying possibility. As America and the Soviet Union ramped up both their caches and rhetoric, families within those most likely of target areas practised their drills in the event of a thermonuclear missile strike.

In Shute’s best known novel, the author describes the actions and emotions of everyday Australians who know the world as they knew it has been largely obliterated and they, whilst not directly attacked, are hostage to deadly radioactive clouds slowly approaching on global air currents. These clouds give the novel its timescale and purpose, Shute creates a haunting backdrop in which we are compelled to consider our own thoughts and actions in similar circumstances.

The arrival of Captain Dwight Towers and his crew of an American nuclear submarine confirms the towns residents of their worst fears, they are the sole survivors from the northern hemisphere and the Americans themselves must accept the fate of their loved ones whilst they remained deep below the ocean surface.

As news spreads of the fate of other nations, the Australian naval command orders Towers to investigate the possibility of life in Seattle following a weak Morse code signal. Accompanying him are two Australians; naval Lieutenant Peter Holmes and Professor John Osborne who introduce him to Moira Davidson, a young, heavy drinking Australian woman who intends to live her life to the full before the radioactive clouds arrive later in the year. Holmes has a wife and young daughter, his wife (Mary) refuses to accept the reality of their situation, making plans for the garden and insisting on carrying on as normal.

Towers and Moira become close companions but the American refuses to be unfaithful to his wife and young family despite knowing that they are all undoubtedly dead. Shute develops this relationship to the brink of physical affection using typical Shute under statement and stiff upper lip and this dignified and platonic friendship intensifies the desperate sadness of the books ending.

I enjoyed this book, it is a well written but I couldn’t help feel what it might have been in the hands of one of the great writers, Nevil Shute was never top tier and it shows in the lack of complexity afforded his characters. Having read the book I discovered it was brought to the big screen twice, the first in 1959 in a film starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire. It’s that kind of a novel.

But despite its flaws it remains an important book and one which touches upon grim realities some sixty years on from its setting. As Syrian families realise their own mortality in the light of chemical attacks, On the Beach offers a reminder of what the innocent face in times of war. Shute’s novel at its time of publication was a timely and devastating assessment of atomic warfare and the effects of radiation poisoning. In 1957 it was a book which demanded to be read by those who put the world on a state of high and terrifying alert, the novel’s characters were decent, likeable people who accepted their fate with grace and dignity and to that end it offers a lesson to all of us.

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