On the Beach by Nevil Shute

A review of the post-apocalyptic literary novel On the Beach by Nevil Shute.

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When I started this book, I had presumed things were normal. I had read and watched so many end-of-the-world stories that I was waiting for ‘the event.’ But, to my pleasant surprise, this book doesn’t play to the same strategies we are all so used to; it plays to its strength, which is honing in on beautifully simple and utterly realistic characters who, through subtle and chillingly ominous hints, I realised already knew their days were numbered.

The third war had already happened.

This is the story of a small collection of characters living on the coast of glorious Australia who, after receiving news of bombings in the Northern Hemisphere and then hearing nothing more from the silent top of the world, presume the worst. The extent of their knowledge of what is coming, and of each character’s individual belief and understanding of it, are gradually spread out through the pages.

Some of these characters look to their last few months of life as an agonising wait, while others see it as a blessing where they are able to make the most of the time they have left.

‘That’s so,’ he replied. ‘But no wind does blow right into the southern hemisphere from the northern hemisphere. If it did we’d all be dead right now.’

‘I wish we were,’ she said bitterly. ‘It’s like waiting to be hung.’

‘Maybe it is. Or maybe it’s a period of grace.’

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

One the Beach shows none of the sudden anarchy and mindless brutality that we expect to see from characters who are about to die, drawn from our knowledge of more modern apocalyptic dramas. This story, and the characters living and dying in it, are restrained, very polite, and civilised. They are still themselves. They are still buying garden furniture for a summer they’ll never see, and even planting daffodil bulbs to come up the following spring. Farmers are going through the motion of crop rotation, ensuring their fields are fertile for years to come, though they will not be there to tend them.

It’s not truly denial, as once reminded of their future these characters chuckle at how their actions are strange. I believe it’s a mixture of strong routine and hope, and for a few characters a lot of alcohol.

It’s also the fact that, if they were not still continuing to work and to carry on with hobbies, they would not be able to keep themselves distracted and would go mad thinking about it.

One reason I love to read stories where there is a lack of something we all take for granted, such as electricity or petrol, is that I enjoy seeing how people adapt and keep living, and the new inventions that are created to overcome the problems. For On the Beach, the lack of a mainstream supply of petrol has led to cars and tractors and all manner of mechanic vehicles being pulled apart, stripped and mutated into cart-like transportation that can be pulled by horse or cow. Steam trains are heavily utilised, and the few submarines that were submerged at the time of ‘the event’ and that surfaced in the ‘safe’ Southern Hemisphere, are still in use.

On the Beach was first published in 1957, and the only thing that hints at its age is the occasional jolt in dialogue where, over the last 60 or so years, we seem to have added a word or two into our sentences that are seemingly missing from character conversation. This only happens three or four times in the entire book and is not a negative factor, but merely an interesting example of our evolving language.

Another aspect of this book I greatly enjoyed is the spectrum of relationships that are formed, kept and tested throughout this ominous time, and the strong respect that is upheld between both friends and strangers.

My favourite scene is dark and deliberately shocking, and quite near the end so I won’t give too much away. Petrol is rereleased to the masses, since hospitals and police no longer need to safeguard it, and car enthusiasts race in a tournament where, knowing they are going to die in a fortnight or so anyway, they really do go for it.

The characters in this story are so very strong and have to be admired for their unwavering light heartedness, positivity and dignity right up until the end.

‘He thinks you’ll go for a day or so, and then you’ll get sick.’

From the boat the fisherman said, ‘Well, it’s a mighty nice day to have for the last one. Wouldn’t it be hell if it was raining?’

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

Perhaps this is just an individual viewpoint, but I was gut-sure there would be some big twist, some lack of communication or conspiracy theory behind what was happening, a happy ending. I’ll leave you to read this story and discover the truth for yourself.

Rebecca Delphine is an aspiring Young Adult author from Thanet.

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