On the Beach, by Nevil Shute. Pub 1957
My copy of this book is a remnant from my pop’s library (he once told me that the things you never get rid of are books, which I think explains a bit of my bibliophilia). I recall reading this same copy in Grade 9, on his recommendation/requirement (he was not impressed with the reading assignments from school that year), and the story has stuck with me ever since. In my recent purge of books (the above bibliophilia notwithstanding, space needs required that I downsize nearly 200 books last year as part of tackling the tsundoku), I rediscovered the book and decided to add to this year’s list, not realizing how eerie and poignant it would be in these days.
Briefly, the setting is South Australia, in the area around Melbourne, in 1963. The world is ending after a nuclear weapons exchange in the Northern Hemisphere loaded the atmosphere with radioactive dust that is slowly moving south. The short war seems to have been started when a more local war spun out of control; after a misinterpretation of the source of subsequent attacks on US and UK, NATO attacks Russia* and China, but ultimately everyone bombed everyone so the start is irrelevant. The end is nigh. The novel tells the story of the last months of a collection of people, including a US submariner and his crew, some Aussie navy people and their families, and Moira Davidson, a young woman in their circle. The ending is inevitable, slowly inexorable. The story takes you into and along the last days of these ordinary people at the edge and end of the world. The last pages of the book, the final days and goodbyes, are extremely moving (to tears), as is the section where the Americans revisit the US coastline, and two sailors go ashore; for one, it is his hometown, and he opts to say and spend his last days among the familiar spaces, a decision that is both relatable and tragic.
Amazing, for a story that is more than 50 years old, is how current it feels. The everyday person in the story has little knowledge about what happened elsewhere in the world, and learns too late how global events can have a local impact. In 1963, there was no internet, cell phones, etc. but with the cataclysm of events those things would have made little difference to the survivors. The more basic elements – food, shelter, water, electricity, fuel – become the priorities, and the unknown world beyond Australia continues to shrink and also become less relevant. There are very few conversations about what happened or why, until near the end:
Mary: Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?
Peter: …Some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop…if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there’s not much you or I can do about it.
With the deluge of information, mis- and otherwise, that floods most people today over the internet and social, it is difficult to see that things are any better today. In fact, the resourcefulness and know-how of the novel’s characters is likely something that most modern folks would be hopeless at.
Interesting for me was the striking contrast between this apocalypse story and others that I have read in recent years (Into That Darkness, Moon of the Crusted Snow, The Last Policeman). In those other stories, the world descends into chaos, lawlessness, and mayhem very quickly. Violence is ramped up, and the hopelessness of the end or even just the uncertainty drives people to the unspeakable very, very quickly. In On the Beach, the citizens are placid and peaceful, even in the absence of any order. They bond, cooperate, love, share, and die together, without rancour and with minimal regret. Many talk about the future as being very real, even as the days wind down for them all. The family plants a garden, including trees that will take years to blossom. Moira takes shorthand and typing lessons. The captain buys gifts for his family – long since dead in the US, but who he refers to as being “at home” and to whom he plans to return, even if just in spirit. Along side these ordinary things, some go all out on their dreams and desires, but not in any dangerous or selfish ways. One man spends his life savings on a membership to a fancy club with a seemingly bottomless wine cellar, and on a race car (they day before the end, he ends up winning the last ever Australian Grand Prix). While there is some evidence of chaos and disorder on the fringes of the remains of society, the main characters, mostly ordinary folks, remain ordinary in extraordinary times. It is this element that is most poignant and relatable – they could be anyone of us. One can only hope for such a calm and quiet end to humanity.
To have read this in this week, with Russia in Ukraine and China knocking on Taiwan’s door, was very scary. The writing and story in this novel are evocative and engaging, and stay with you for a long time. Indeed, I remembered much of the story from my first reading 40 years ago, and will for a good while more now.
I read “On the Beach” back in the 60s and several times since. The movie was true to the book and is one of my lifetime favourites. I think your review captures the essence of the story which was, basically, how people who seemed to have been thoughtful, kind and gracious remained true to their characters as they faced the imminent end of human beings on the planet. Other characters, more flawed, seemed to make an effort to become more thoughtful, kind and gracious – perhaps realizing the uselessness of anger, blaming and greed.