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On the Beach by Nevil Shute

On the Beach (original 1957; edition 1983)

by Nevil Shute

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3,4501211,558 (3.86)271
Title:On the Beach
Authors:Nevil Shute
Info:Ballantine Books (1983), Edition: 50699, Mass Market Paperback, 278 pages
Collections:Your library

Work details

On the Beach by Nevil Shute (1957)

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Showing 1-5 of 117 (next | show all)
After loving the character-driven wartime odyssey Pied Piper, I set out in search of more Nevil Shute books. As a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction scenarios, I had already heard of On the Beach and so it seemed like the natural next port-of-call. Unfortunately, however, despite some moments I found it to be rather staid and unimaginative.

In On the Beach, there has been a catastrophic nuclear war – the book was published in 1957 for a generation coming to terms with Mutually Assured Destruction – and the northern hemisphere has been wiped out by the holocaust. The story takes place in Australia, where the radioactive fallout from the northerners' folly is gradually – but inevitably – approaching. We follow a group of characters as we come to terms with their new reality and the two key flaws of the book – critically speaking – result from this.

The first is the characters themselves. Any character-driven story needs, funnily enough, interesting characters to drive the story forward. But none of Shute's in On the Beach leap out. The male ones are interchangeable: I often forgot which one was speaking; their voices and speech patterns are so similar, and half-way through one scene I was surprised when I realized there were three characters in the conversation and not two. The female characters are more distinguishable, but that's because they are more cliché: the scatter-brained housewife and the loose alcoholic. In general, none of the characters really move beyond their initial standpoint and by the end we've witnessed very little growth.

This leads me onto the second flaw, which is that not much happens plot-wise. The blurb of the new Vintage edition of the book emphasises that there is a faint radio signal coming from the United States, but in actuality this only takes up a small portion of the book and comes to nothing. (Side note: I've only just noticed that the front cover of the Vintage edition contains a mushroom cloud above the water. Rather neat.) The majority of the book is just characters milling around waiting for the end. Some are in denial, others pragmatic and stoical (though none, strangely, who come off the rails). There is some dignity and poetry in this – of having "a cup of tea before the dying fire" (pg. 206) – but for the most part it is just mundane. No one really does anything, and many don't even admit that things are even happening, which isn't exactly an exciting thing to read about.

There is, however, some literary yield from this stance. It is often emphasised by Shute that "none of us believe it's ever really going to happen – not to us… Everybody's crazy on that point, one way or another" (pg. 113), and in a way this is the moral of the story. On the Beach is a Cold War cautionary tale, encouraging its 1950s audience not to be complacent about the reality of M.A.D., along with an intermittent anti-war message about the totality of the destruction (at its most explicit on page 40: "We had nothing to do with it. Why should we have to die because other countries nine or ten thousand miles away from us wanted to have a war?"). But not only is the moral rather dated now in the 21st century (at least in its particulars), but it's never really exploited by Shute. For all his skill in prose and in setting, his characters in On the Beach don't come to the fore to really bring his theme to flower. He has a good try regardless, and it is surely an admirable theme, but in actuality it just means everyone is doing ordinary stuff for 300 pages. ( )
  MikeFutcher | Sep 5, 2016 |
I read this book without realising it was science fiction, which is a weird way to go about it, but that's just how it happened.

This is set in a post-apocalyptic world (Melbourne, Australia, specifically). It was fascinating for me to read about a Melbourne I'd never been to - a Melbourne from the 1950's and 60's. Sparse, stark, a little bit dirty, a little bit worn around the edges, it's nothing like the young, complex, layered little city that I know today, full of little coffeeshops, boutiques, business centres and walls of graffiti.

The writing style was very dark, very masculine, very slow-building. While I didn't necessarily like it, it held me in. I wanted to find out what happened. So I kept reading, and I kept reading.

The plot in this story feels almost insidious, it creeps up on you. One of the main characters is genuinely just waiting for the end of the world, and so you just wait with him too.

I'm giving this book 3 stars, but if you think this is the book for you, by all means, give it a go. ( )
  lydia1879 | Aug 31, 2016 |

A nuclear war has destroyed the Northern Hemisphere, and radioactive dust is drifting south at a steady rate. In less than one year, the radioactive cloud will reach those living in southern Australia.

In Melbourne, the southernmost large city in the world, Peter Holmes, a Lieutenant Commander in the Australian navy, is appointed as a liaison officer to the U.S.S. Scorpion, an American nuclear submarine captained by Commander Dwight Towers. Peter accepts the position, even though he is troubled by the thought of leaving his wife, Mary, alone with their baby daughter, Jennifer, especially when the radiation is likely to reach Melbourne in only six months.

Peter invites Dwight to spend the weekend at his home in Falmouth, a suburb of Melbourne. There, Dwight meets Moira Davidson, a young woman who drinks heavily to forget her despair about the fact that her impending death means she will never have the future about which she has dreamed. On Sunday, Dwight goes to church alone to think about his family in America. Although he knows everyone in the Northern Hemisphere is dead, he still thinks of them as if they are alive and waiting for his return to Connecticut.

The next day, John Osborne, a civilian scientist, joins the crew of the Scorpion. Dwight invites Moira to tour the submarine and then go dancing. A day later, the submarine sets out for an eleven-day cruise up the coast of Australia to look for traces of life. The only living creature they see on the entire voyage is a single dog.

On board, the crew talks about the war. No one has written a history of the war, and no one really even knows how it started or escalated. They know that Albania started an Arab-Israeli War, which led to a Russia-NATO war, which led to a Russo-Chinese war. When the Scorpion returns, they report to their superiors about their disappointing trip. A crewmember gets the measles, and Peter's wife worries that baby Jennifer will get sick.

Dwight and Moira spend more time together and become good friends. Dwight talks about his family as if they are still alive. Moira falls in love with Dwight, but she realizes he will remain loyal to his wife. Dwight visits Moira's family's farm, and he is delighted to see trees from the Northern Hemisphere. Moira's father, like many other characters in the novel, cannot accept his inevitable demise, and he is still preparing his farm for future years. Peter and Mary are also spending time planning their garden, planting flowers that will not bloom until after the couple is dead.

When Dwight and Peter return to Melbourne, they find out their next mission is to investigate the Jorgensen effect, a controversial theory that claims that snow and rain will cleanse the atmosphere so the radiation will never reach southern Australia. They are also instructed to investigate the source of a mysterious, intermittent radio signal that has been coming from the Seattle area. After the briefing, John shows Peter his red Ferrari. John has bought the car because he has always dreamed about racing and now has the opportunity.

Before Peter goes on the submarine expedition, he tells Mary that the radiation sickness might reach her and Jennifer while he is away. He tells Mary that she may have to euthanize Jennifer with a lethal injection so that the baby will not die a slow, painful death from radiation sickness. Mary becomes hysterical, accusing Peter of wanting to murder her daughter, but she later apologizes for not accepting their inevitable fate.

Meanwhile, Moira surprises Dwight by telling him she is taking secretarial courses and drinking much less than she used to. Dwight buys a fishing rod for his son and an expensive bracelet for his wife. He desperately wants to give a pogo stick to his daughter, but all the stores are sold out, so Moira promises to find one for him while he is away.

The Scorpion sets out for the west coast of the United States. When they are just offshore of a small town near Seattle, Yeoman Swain, an American crewmember, jumps ship and swims ashore, knowing that the radiation will kill him, but wanting to die in his hometown. The sub continues up the coast and investigates the mysterious radio signals coming from the Seattle area. Lieutenant Sunderstrom goes onshore in a protective suit and finds out the mysterious signal—a source of hope back in Australia—is merely being generated by a broken windowpane that has been teetering on top of the transmitting button whenever the wind blows.

Dwight comes down with a fever when he returns to Australia, and he stays at Moira's farm to recuperate. Moira gives Dwight a pogo stick to give as a gift to his daughter. The radiation is now supposed to arrive in Melbourne in August, and the residents of the city are beginning to slow down and do what they really want to do in their final days. John races his Ferrari in the qualifying heats for the Australian Grand Prix. Many drivers take big risks and are killed in the race, but many consider such a death preferable to radiation sickness. John eventually wins the Grand Prix. Peter and Mary spend time tending to their garden, while Moira and Dwight go fishing in the mountains.

By the end of August, everyone becomes ill from the radiation. John takes a cyanide pill while sitting in his Ferrari. Peter euthanizes Jennifer, and then he and Mary take pills together in bed. Dwight dies while performing what he sees as his final duty—sinking the Scorpion in international waters, going down with the ship. Moira had hoped to go onboard with Dwight, but he refused her, saying that the U.S. Navy would not approve. Instead, Moira drives to a cliff overlooking the ocean to watch the submarine go out to sea. Sitting in her car, watching the ship go down, she takes her final pill with a shot of brandy. ( )
  bostonwendym | Aug 8, 2016 |
I read this ages ago, of course, but although I remember it too poorly to claim it here as read, I'm confident it's worth a re-read.
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Jun 5, 2016 |
Another end-of-the-world book, it doesn't have the survival instinct of Alas Babylon or the civilization-starting-over theme of Earth Abides--everyone knows they're going to die and they do. The fact that they go about what's left of their lives with dignity (and some selective denial) only makes the end worse. Despite the foregone conclusion I found it impossible to put down. ( )
  unclebob53703 | Jun 1, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nevil Shuteprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Powers, Richard M.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prebble, SimonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river...

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

--T.S. Eliot
First words
Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes of the Royal Australian Navy woke soon after dawn.
"I couldn't bear to - to just stop doing things and do nothing. You might as well die now and get it over." ... "I'd like to do things right, up to the end."
As time passed, the radioactivity would pass also ... these streets and houses would be habitable again ... The human race was to be wiped out and the world made clean again for wiser occupants."
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Book description
A very serious book, intending to give warning - how easily such total international destruction could happen, and how catastrophic the consequences. Portrays the last living humans, in Australia, awaiting their certain approaching end.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345311485, Mass Market Paperback)

"The most shocking fiction I have read in years. What is shocking about it is both the idea and the sheer imaginative brilliance with which Mr. Shute brings it off."
They are the last generation, the innocent victims of an accidental war, living out their last days, making do with what they have, hoping for a miracle. As the deadly rain moves ever closer, the world as we know it winds toward an inevitable end....

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:44 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

A novel about the survivors of an atomic war, who face an inevitable end as radiation poisoning moves toward Australia from the North. The most shocking fiction I have read in years. What is shocking about it is both the idea and the sheer imaginative brilliance with which Mr. Shute brings it off. They are the last generation, the innocent victims of an accidental war, living out their last days, making do with what they have, hoping for a miracle.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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