A review by Julia Davis
On the Beach - a book about nuclear war and the end of the world. I think I knew that before I'd heard of Nevil Shute. I started on his books another way though, and worked round with trepidation to probably his best known work.
It is a great deal more subtle than my opening remark. Even the war has a complexity that lends it credibility - started not by superpowers but by little "irresponsibles", continued not by megalomaniacs but by honest men trying to do what was right...or at least it is supposed so, as they are no longer available for comment where Shute takes up the story.
For it is not a story about the war, though the consequences of the brief conflict constitute the only villain. This is classic Shute, a story about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. It details beautifully their various reactions to their inevitable deaths - from denial, escapism and religious fervour, to acceptance and the new "madness" that that brings.
The story may not be about the war, but the war remains the key and function of the book. Shute himself explained his purpose in writing it, placing the words in the mouth of Peter Holmes: "...if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there's not much that you or I can do about it. The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness." That doesn't mean, though, that it should be read as a dry lesson. It is a beautifully crafted tale with very real characters whose lives catch and hold the imagination.
I almost funked out of reading it myself, expecting it to be too heavy and depressing. With Shute I should have known better. For both narrator and characters the sadness is shot through with a wry, almost flippant, humour which is perhaps the only mental defence against the subject. In fact on first reading I was carried along with the resilience and even optimism of the characters to such an extent as to find the book almost cheerful. It is only in stepping away from the characters and looking honestly at their situation that the true impact arrives, a cruel wrench of the perception away from their quiet dignity to the full horror of their fate; and when that happens those flippant touches become perhaps the greatest wrench of all.