Thursday, June 18, 2009

09.19 On The Beach by Nevil Shute

On The Beach (1957) by Neville Shute
Pbk, Signet, 238 p.

Finally. I have been wanting to read this novel again for years and never actually found the time to pick it up. I think I may have read it as a teen so my perspectives and interpretations now are, I expect, wholly different.

The novel is a surprisingly bleak indictment of the aftermath of nuclear war. I always find it interesting when I read post-apocalyptic books from the 50's and 60's at how devastating the results of a nuclear holocaust are portrayed. At that point in time only 2 bombs had been dropped but I expect there was a certain immediacy to the devastation for most people. Pictures and newsreel footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were probably widely distributed. Perhaps I should never underestimate the power of the public's fear when it comes to disaster.

On The Beach posits that a widespread nuclear war has devastated the northern hemisphere rendering it totally uninhabitable. The novel takes place in Melbourne where a young naval officer with a wife and new baby lives the ideal 50's dream in a small house outside the city. He is recalled on assignment to be the liaison officer to one of the last remaining US naval vessels, a submarine. The Australian and the commander of the sub become something of friends.

In the background there is an impending menace. The nuclear fallout id advancing slowly south and over the coming months will render the entire planet uninhabitable. Shute uses this set-up to examine how the various characters in the book deal with their inevitable mortality. The nerdy scientist takes to racing a sports car, the US sub captain remains chaste in memory of his dead family while being courted by a young lady or the Australian officer plants a flower garden that he will never see bloom. Pretty heavy handed stuff as you can see.

Nevertheless, Shute finds a little bite in his examination of class structure and the Australian (read: British) "stiff upper lip" mindset. There is no chaos in the book; no one riots or gets out of control unless some heavy drinking counts. Calm stuff in the face of certain death. I found that the psychology of the characters, while odd seeming to me, was interesting and worthwhile.


downtown guy said...

One of my favorites.

Crumbolst said...

Sounds good. It's now on my list.

Redwing said...

This book was on my list for a long time. I even bought a copy that I loaned out and never got back. I still want to read it, but because it is on the school's summer reading list I feel like I already have. For every one of the past three years I have read at least a dozen essays about this one. The kids do like it, and must tell their friends. I think they'd be better served reading Earth Abides.

I'll try this one, though. Thanks for the reviewspiration.