Category Archives: Neville Shute

On The Beach, by Nevil Shute

Vintage Classics, 2009 edition, 320 pages - Book group choice.

On The Beach was my choice for this months Riverside Readers book group. After discovering Nevil Shute last year, I was keen to read another of his novels and from reviews I had read on Amazon thought it would make a good book for discussion.

Written in 1957, On The Beach takes place in the aftermath of a war which has resulted in most of the world being wiped out by radioactive fallout. An American submarine captain is among the few survivors sheltering in a Australia who are in their own different ways, coming to terms with the knowledge that the radioactive cloud will reach them in a matter of months. The submarine captain, named Commander Dwight Towers, makes friends with a young naval officer and his wife and is introduced to their neighbour Moira who he becomes close to in spite of memories of the wife and child he left in America. When a faint morse code signal is picked up transmitting from the United States, The submarine embarks on a trip to discover if there could be signs of life.

The first thing I want to mention is that I’m not generally drawn to stories that are set on boats or submarines (Savidge Reads and I both have a bizarre horror of this subject matter). In fact I vividly remember being bored to the point of falling a sleep in the cinema watching the film of The Hunt for The Red October as a child. I don’t think that I would have dreamt of reading this if it hadn’t been for the fact that I absolutely adored A Town Like Alice (you can read my glowing review here). I am so glad that I did.

I think it is important to note that this is not a book about a submarine adventure, in fact it’s a book with very little ‘plot’ to speak of. The focus, and the strength of this novel is it’s superb character development and the small but vivid community that Shute depicts in a small Austalian backwater of a town. Lieutenant Peter Holmes is the first character we meet and he has a young wife Mary and little baby Jennifer. Peter is stoically carrying on, aware that the worst is to come but occupying himself. Mary on the other hand is in denial along with the rest of the town. Somehow people can’t stop referring to the things they will be doing next year and Mary continues to plant her garden even though she will never see her flowers bloom. Dwight Towers is invited to stay with Peter and Mary at the beginning of the novel and through them meets Moira Davidson who he becomes close to. Curiously, Moira who is permanently tipsy at the beginning of the story and seems to be a bit of a floozy, becomes a far more sober character as it continues in more ways than one. The relationship between Moira and Dwight is quite central in the book, and is a poignant one. I don’t want to go into too much detail and spoil everything though!

On The Beach is a fascinating novel. Despite there not being very much action in the book, Shute really takes the reader on a journey along with the characters he creates. I felt that I shared in their hope, despair and definitely their denial. There were moments in the book that were heartbreaking, and I found one particular scene – the heats of a grand prix race deeply shocking. It is pretty dreadful to imagine the situation where people are so tired of waiting for the end that they hurtle themselves around in what amounts to a deathrace. However, in an odd way I found it an uplifting book, because it promotes humanity’s best aspects – tenderness, kindness and bravery – in the face of near-certain extinction.

I found On The Beach in many ways the opposite of Town Like Alice (which wierdly I read almost exactly a year ago). It is about destruction instead of construction. Instead of having a strong plot, it is a book that sets the scene and slowly and subtly reveals the horror of the situation. It is also very clearly a warning, from someone writing at a time when the threat of nuclear war was very real, and brought home to me how frightening that prospect must have been.

A clever, disturbing and quietly emotional novel. The message of On The Beach will stay with me for a long time to come.

My rating:

9 out of 10

Have you read On The Beach or other Shute novels? What is the most moving book that you have read recently?

Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice

Nevil Shute - A Town Like Alice I wonder, have I found a new author to add to my favourites list? A couple of weeks ago I blogged about joining a book club (A New Book Group Frontier) at my new job and although a little worried that I might be over-subscribing myself, was excited about the choice of the month – Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice.

First published in 1950, A Town Like Alice follows the path of protagonist Jean Paget. Taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, Jean is among a party of European women who are marched back wards and forwards over hundreds of miles in Malaya, because no camp will take them and nobody seems to know what else to do with them. I don’t want to give away too many details of the story, if you do want to know more about what happens you can find out on Wikipedia here. But be warned it’s a synopsis so there are spoilers. The novel follows Jean from Japanese occupied Malaya in 1930, home to London and all the way out to Australia and we see her grow from a smart and strong young woman to quite a philanthropist as she settles in a backwater of Queensland and strives to develop little Willstown into a town like Alice Springs.

A Town Like Alice is a real ‘story’. It’s sort of an adventure part morality tale about personal strength, survival and a woman’s desire to create something beautiful out of the bare means in a time when women had very little influence. I apologies if that description makes it sound incredibly naff, but it’s really not. It is certainly cinematic in a way that must have made it the perfect candidate for the 1956 movie and the1981 TV series, but the characters are down to earth, their successes and failures real, and the writing is of the highest standard. I didn’t realise before I read it but wasn’t surprised to find out afterwards that it was based on the actual experiences of a woman named Carry Geysel who was one of a group of 80 Dutch women forced to march 1,200 miles around Sumatra after they were taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1942. It struck chord with me because my Dutch-born grandmother was taken prisoner by the Japanese during the second world war in Java. The stories she has told me of the way that people coped and kept themselves going in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, are similar to those of the women and children described in this novel. In particular the little happy moments where people nicked food or little treats that made things bearable. Also, because she was of a similar age to Jean it makes it easier for me to imagine the bravery, understand the small kindnesses and what it meant for a woman at that time and that situation.

There are many important themes in the novel, but the key ones are of survival and later, philanthropy. In A Town Like Alice, people are judged by their deeds and personal strength, whatever their race or social status. Being set when it was, it’s perhaps not surprising that there is some racist language that is now considered inappropriate. However the language that is used makes sense in the context. I felt that for the era in which it was written, it was pretty well rounded and forward thinking in this regard. For example the Japanese are never portrayed as simply ‘bad’ – each character is judged on their actions as an individual.

I had a soft spot for the character of Noel Strachan, Jean’s lawyer who looks after her trust fund. The story is told from his point of view and his reminiscences which begin in stormy day in Scotland almost reminded me a little of the way in which Wilkie Collins’ stories are structured (although that’s probably because I’m reading Armadale right now). Noel has a sort of guardian-like role in the novel, looking after Jean’s affairs and as the book progresses you see his admiration for her grow. Some of his narrative pieces made me feel quite tearful.

A Town Like Alice is a truly satisfying novel. It’s original and captivating, with great characters but the reason I enjoyed it so much is that it’s a brilliant story. Definitely recommended.