When it comes to novels about the apocalypse, certain titles immediately spring to mind, such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and of course, Stephen King’s epic The Stand. While I’ve read and quite enjoyed all of these works, for me On the Beach by Nevil Shute will always be the most memorable. No, you won’t find any insane savages, bloodthirsty vampires, or Randall Flagg in Shute’s tragic tale of the end of humanity. Instead, this is an introspective human story about the end of the world.
If half the world was destroyed in a nuclear war and a massive amount of radioactive dust was headed your way, how would you choose to spend your final months? This is the question at the heart of On the Beach, one of several post-apocalyptic novels that were written in the wake of the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Upon its publication in 1957, I cannot imagine the amount of fear On the Beach instilled at a time when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was reaching its boiling point. The novel is set around Melbourne, Australia in 1963, after World War III decimated all life in the Northern Hemisphere. While the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere are still habitable, air currents are slowly bringing the radiation fallout which will mean the end of all life on the planet.
“The short, bewildering war had followed, the war of which no history had been written or ever would be written now, that had flared all around the northern hemisphere and had died away with the last seismic record of explosion on the thirty-seventh day.”
The title of this novel is based on a T.S. Eliot poem that includes the lines, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” On the Beach will undoubtedly be the quietest post-apocalypse novel you will ever read. While my only other experience reading Nevil Shute is his 1939 novel Ordeal, I couldn’t help notice a similar domestic aesthetic in this much later work. This novel opens with a young couple and their newborn baby waking to start their day. At first, I was perplexed with how much of the book’s attention is centered on everyday affairs. Once I fell into the quiet rhythm of the novel, I began to appreciate its power of showing how regular people react to the fact that they will die in just a few months. Shute wastes no time in giving some exposition about the war and its affects. Due to a shortage of petroleum, the characters have to get around in horse-drawn buggies and bicycles. Printing has also stopped, meaning there will never be any documentation for the history books that this war ever happened.
Through keeping a tight focus on this final microcosm of humanity, specifically on a handful of characters, Shute powerfully shows the horror of a nuclear war. The main character is Commander Dwight Towers, a U.S. Naval Officer, stationed in Australia. He has a wife and two children back home in Mystic, Connecticut, and he holds on to a false belief that they are still alive, even buying them presents for when he returns in a very heartbreaking scene. Moments in the novel reveal that he does know they are dead, but acting like he will return to them is the talisman that gives him strength. Towers has been assigned to command the submarine, the USS Scorpion, to investigate a mysterious Morse code radio signal emitting from Seattle, Washington. Serving under him is Peter Holmes, the officer with wife and newborn that we are introduced to in the opening. One of their close friends is Moira Davison, an unattached young woman who they set up with Towers. The dynamics that unfold between Towers and Moira are the most compelling of the novel, as he is someone who abides by very strict duty and she is someone who tries to distract herself from the end of the world through drinking and partying.
“Maybe we’ve been too silly to deserve a world like this.”
Throughout the novel, each of the main characters attempts to live life, despite knowing that the end is coming. As a scientist assigned to the Scorpion says, there is no escaping the radiation sickness that is approaching. I cannot express enough how well Shute manages to balance these two dichotomies of peace with foreboding. While these characters go to work, plant gardens, and spend time at the beach, there is this sense of impending doom that slowly builds and builds as pharmacies begin to dispense suicide pills and everyone wonders just how much time is left. The novel also poses an interesting mystery that does get resolved in who is sending the mysterious signal that the crew of the Scorpion is investigating.
The location of the beach plays a rather significant role in the novel for a couple of reasons. It was on a beach that started this nuclear war. However, it is also a place where everyone goes to enjoy the simple pleasures, like boating and fishing. I’m reminded of another gem from T.S. Eliot that goes, “At the beach-time you enjoyed wasting, is not wasted.” Sure, maybe it doesn’t make sense that someone wants to spend their last days fishing, or planting a garden that will never be seen, but it also does make sense. This is surely Nevil Shute’s most existential novel, as we learn right along with the characters the most important aspects of life are the simple pleasures. The meaning of life is what we make it.
The story can be a little slow at times, but I never had an issue with the pacing as I finished the novel rather quickly. Shute does include a little high-octane action by including a major car race in the final third of the book. While it did feel a little out-of-place at times, I think it was actually pretty brilliant as the race served as a metaphor for taking control of your life before the fallout occurs.
Despite the lack of action or riveting plot, I thought this human story about middle-class people finding meaning at the end of the world was sheer genius. I’ll be honest, I shed a few tears during this one. It packs some true emotional punch, and I can’t remember the last time I read something that did that. I also appreciated the fact that we had characters who were drawn more to what comforts them and the people they love rather than anti-social violence. The peaceful realism is the true value of this book, and I won’t ever forget it.