On the Beach is my favourite novel by Nevil Shute, who wrote loads of very popular books in the 1950’s and 60’s, although his writing is almost unknown now. There is an Australian connection with Nevil Shute too, since he was born in England but lived in Australia during his later life. Several of his books, including On the Beach and A Town Like Alice, another favourite of mine, are set in Australia.
On the Beach is the story of a group of people, living in Melbourne and waiting for the end of the world. The book is set in the early 1960’s, after a short nuclear war wiped out everyone in the Northern Hemisphere. The radiation from the bombs is slowly spreading south and at the beginning of the story, the main characters, who are enjoying a Melbourne summer, are expecting to die in approximately nine months time, of radiation poisoning.
Peter Holmes is one of the main characters in On the Beach. Peter is a Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Australian Navy, and he and his wife Mary, are responsible for bringing all of the other characters in the story together. When Peter is given a posting with an American submarine based in Melbourne, he invites Commander Dwight Towers of the US Navy to spend a weekend at his and Mary’s beach-side home. Mary then invites her friend Moira to stay to entertain Dwight, as Mary’s previous experience has been that visitors from the Northern Hemisphere break down when they meet her and the baby, thinking of their own families.
In Dwight’s case, he was happily married with a son and a daughter, who, along with his wife, died during the war. Dwight’s way of dealing with his approaching death is to look forward to going home to his family in nine months time.
Moira, as requested, flirts madly with Dwight in an attempt to distract him. She is attractive and bright, but drinks heavily to blot out reality. Over the course of the book Moira falls in love with Dwight, but does not attempt to seduce him, out of respect for his love of his wife and family, although she freely admits that had his wife been alive, she would have considered him fair game.
Dwight’s submarine is sent to the Northern Hemisphere to test radiation levels, and also to investigate a mysterious radio signal coming from a Naval Communications Station. The signal represents the possibility of human life.
For me, On the Beach is all about how people deal with the knowledge that their lives are coming to an end. Some characters bury their heads in the sand, while others try to fulfil their bucket lists. Others, including Mary, continue as if life will go on, planting her garden and planning for the future, refusing to acknowledge any other possibilities.
Another main character is philosophical and accepting; “It’s not the end of the world at all,” he said. “It’s only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”
I have a copy of the movie of the same title, which starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, but haven’t watched it yet. I believe Ava Gardner is credited with saying that Melbourne at that time was the perfect place to make a movie about the end of the world. While her comment was considered to be a criticism of Melbourne’s lack of excitement, it was also a fair representation of Melbourne at the time.
I loved the references throughout the story to Melbourne and the surrounding suburbs. The characters take trams and shop in streets that I know, and they work in places I have worked in, which gave me a real thrill when I was reading. (When I first read this book, those places of work were still in my future). Australia was very English until quite recently, and the language and style of the character’s speech is familiar to me too.
My biggest criticism of this book is that women aren’t treated particularly kindly in this story. There are only three main female characters in On the Beach, and one of them is already dead. Of the other two, Moira, drinks heavily and has no purpose in life, while Mary’s emotional response to reality is portrayed as being particularly weak minded. This may have been representative of the times, with men making all of the decisions in many Australian households, but Peter treating Mary like a child and Mary behaving like one grated on me eventually. However, I don’t remember this author treating women this way in other books I’ve read by him.
I enjoyed my re-read of On the Beach so much that I will be re-reading other books by Nevil Shute sooner rather than later, starting with A Town Like Alice.