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.
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?