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Book Review: On the Beach by Nevil Shute

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Nevil Shute originally published his novel On the Beach in 1957. Vintage International republished his book this past February. On the Beach depicts an emotional and psychological story about the demise of civilization after a thermonuclear war. The main theme of On the Beach attempts to answer the question: How will people and society react, given the knowledge mankind will cease to exist in six to nine months?

Interestingly enough, Shute describes a nuclear war that could take place today. World War III started with Albanian state-sponsored terrorists detonating a nuclear device in Naples. Then someone bombed Tel Aviv. The Egyptians dropped some on the U.S. with planes they purchased from the Russians. The U.S. didn’t realize Egyptians carried out the attack so the U.S. retaliated against the Russians. In the meantime, the Russians and the Chinese attacked each other. In the end about 4,000 nuclear bombs exploded in the Northern Hemisphere, but no nuclear bombs landed on the Southern Hemisphere.

Melbourne, Australia serves as the location for this post-apocalyptic story. Its inhabitants would be the last ones killed by the nuclear fall-out from World War III. The few remaining U.S. naval ships have made their way to ports in the Southern Hemisphere. Commander Dwight Towers and his nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Scorpion have docked in Melbourne for refitting.

Commander Towers serves as the main protagonist of our story. In his pre-war life, he had a wife and two children. They are now dead, but in Dwight’s mind they still live. However in the waning days of civilization, he establishes a platonic relationship with a young Australian woman Moira Davidson. Dwight personifies the stereotypical, steadfast, formal, rule-following Navy man that does everything by-the-book. He would never cheat on his wife even after her death. Moira would like him to cheat on his wife, but she respects his decision. Moira’s character matures through her relationship with Dwight. They aid each other in accepting their fate.

Additional supporting protagonists include Australians Peter and Mary Holmes and their newborn infant Jennifer, as well as John S. Osborne, a scientist. All of the characters portray individuals trying to cope with the knowledge of their imminent death. However none of them can or will grasp the reality of their situation. They don’t quite believe it will happen. The foreboding doom drives everyone in the story a little bit insane.

Shute has several scenes that emphasize the hopelessness of the characters. He may even cause a tear or two. No one will ever read a history book written about the war, so why write one? No one will ever walk the streets again, or live in the houses. Why plant a garden that you will never harvest? Why take a class that you will never have the opportunity to use? Why go to work? Will you embrace religion, sex, or alcohol to get you through the remaining months?

In one scene, Peter Holmes will soon be going to explore the U.S. west coast for several months aboard the submarine. He fears the end may come for his wife and child while he is at sea. He must discuss their government provided suicide options with Mary before he leaves. ""Let me get this straight," she said, and now there was an edge to her voice. "Are you trying to tell me what I've got to do to kill Jennifer?""

Another scene involves the traditional British men’s club, the Pastoral Club. The old gentlemen sit around drinking port, and they lament the lack of time left to drink through the exquisite beverages stored in the wine cellar. Even though the doctor warned them drinking could be hazardous to their health, they see it as their duty to prevent the port from going to waste.

About Bruce G. Smith

I'm a part time writer with a few articles published here and there. In addition to writing, I'm into nature and architectural photography.
  • Jac

    It was an interesting concept in that cold war era. I remember reading this in my youth and watching the original Gregory Peck – Ava Gardner movie. I managed to see the modern interpretation for this in a two part tele-movie that aired in Australia. It received mixed reviews and I was a little disappointed in its climax.

    The movie ends with the survivors taking euthanasia pills to gracefully part and prevent a painful death by radiation just like Nevil Shute’s original storyline. I was hoping that maybe the surviving humanity would of constructed some sort of underground “Noah’s arch” and live there until the radiation subsided.

    It’s a shame that the producers didn’t think of doing something that in the storyline, although I think it may have detracted for it’s original premise, that being the consequences of impending doom. That’s the only disappointment I had regarding the novel and it’s movie(s) interpretation too.

  • Tom

    The problem with Shute’s apocalypse is that, according to current scientific evidence, it is virtually impossible to exterminate mankind by the atmospheric drift of radioactive material as described in the novel. There are two problems with the idea. First, radioactive material from a nuclear explosion does not retain all its lethal properties much beyond the site of the impact. Then, much of the radioactive material would be carried, eventually, into the upper atmosphere where it would be dissipated, rather than be spread all over the surface of the globe. Current estimates of casualties from a nuclear holocaust suggest deaths of the order of hundreds of millions, depending on the location of explosions, and very little impact of a northern hemisphere war in the southern hemisphere. Shute’s novel is highly speculative entertainment and should not be taken seriously as an informed discussion on likely consequences of a nuclear conflict, no matter how widespread.

    The cobalt bombs described by Shute do not exist and are currently considered impractical, largely in terms of cost. Also, given modern surveillance systems, it is very unlikely that weapons originating in Albania or Egypt, as in the novel, could be incorrectly identified as coming from Russia or China – thus launching a global holocaust.

  • http://carpebiblio.blogspot.com Bruce Smith

    Hi Tom,

    Thank you for your comments on modern nuclear warfare, not an area I specialize in so I will take your word for it. On the Beach was published in 1957, and wide spread nuclear war was a major fear in the population.

    While Shute’s science is out of date, I still find his social interpretation of an apocalypse interesting. The disasters in Japan last year and the peaceful way the Japanese dealt with it tends to support Shute’s story. However, the folks in New Orleans and Detroit may behave a little bit differently.