A Review by: Brian Melican
Nevil Shute's novels are primarily about ordinary, decent people struggling admirably against an adverse situation, and succeeding with a modicum of good, old-fashioned exertion. In this respect, On The Beach differs from his other more popular novels. Whilst we have typically decent and moral Shutian characters, and indeed an adverse situation caused by faceless evil, there can be no prospect of success.
The precept to the novel is the most astounding of all Shute's brilliantly dreamed up settings. Showing an ability very rare for many novelists, and indeed for many of his age, he broke away from novels based during his own time and looked to the future. Having lived through two world wars, he obviously did not like what he foresaw. The northern hemisphere, torn apart by a massive nuclear war, is silent. The deadly radiation that killed everyone there is slowly shrouding the planet, and Australia, where the novel is set, will be one of the last places to see its human population extinguished. Whilst this is a real departure from his more usual settings, it is classic Shute territory. The enemy is faceless, indeed long dead, replaced by the situation it has caused. Just like Jean Paget in A Town Like Alice, the book is adumbrated by tragedy and adversity, but not defined by its villainous creators.
The typically Shutian characters inhabit or gather in Melbourne a year after the war. A young couple, Peter and Mary, with a new baby, open the novel. Peter, a naval officer, is introduced to an American submarine commander, whose ironically nuclear submarine has survived the war and made it to Australia. Dwight Towers is an exceptionally nice and controlled man, and even when befriended by Peter and introduced to his ravishingly alcoholic acquaintance Moira, he resists her original advances. The two strike up a charmingly sentimental, but refreshingly chaste, relationship, and from here the novel follows the last hope of humanity. A cruise in a sealed submarine to the northern hemisphere may prove a scientist's ridiculously hopeful predictions of declining radiation, and Dwight, Peter, and Moira's scientist relation John Osborne set out thereto. Unsurprisingly, they find nothing of the sort, and return to Australia. Here, the final kick of a dying civilisation manifests itself, and the inexorable decent into death touches all of the characters. Fittingly, the book ends on the suicide of Peter's young family, just as it began with their shattered hopes, before the suicide of Moira as Dwight sails off to his death.
For a novel about the complete extermination of life on Earth, On The Beach is surprisingly quiet. The distance from the original war, with its obviously horrific consequences, and the fundamental decency of the characters, shields the reader from the mess. Indeed, when Peter Holmes shouts at his wife the effects of radiation sickness on their baby, it is possibly the most stomach wrenching part of the book. However, bearing in mind that millions would have died of burns, internal injuries and other unspeakable afflictions in the burning wreckage of war-ravaged nations, what awaits them seems positively enjoyable. And this is what characterises the book; the reasonable but universal pursuit of some kind of enjoyment in the face of death.
Each character has his or her pleasure. Whether it be the garden of Mary Holmes, the honest physical labour that Towers enjoys, or indeed the comical amounts of port that Douglas Froude simply must finish, each indulges himself. The charming aspect of the book comes from the reserved, considerate, yet determined way that each character pursues his or her want. They never greatly endanger or discomfort anyone else to do it, but a whole society is quite happily slipping into mild hedonism. Many would criticise the quietude with which Shute's characters, nay the entire nation, accept their lot. Wouldn't there be massive civil unrest, looting and thievery on a grand scale, and a generally apocalyptic atmosphere? After all, this is the end of the world. However as his T S Eliot quotation at the beginning points out, the world is set to end "with a whimper".
This reviewer for one would welcome this mature depiction as very well considered and realistic. Shute's point is that human decency will always survive where possible. In a society not directly under attack from atomic weaponry, the threads and connections that make society function have survived; indeed many of the inanimate connections will long outlive their human creators, and the radio signals near Seattle are Shute's perhaps unsubtle demonstration of this. The moderate way with which the characters accept their fate is utterly convincing. Shute's talent has always been depicting ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and pointing out the powerful effect of routine and habit in helping people through times of great stress. Besides all of this moderation and conviviality, Shute (daringly for him) points towards slightly less desirable elements of society (the high rate of drunkenness), but highlights the eternal truth that good far outweighs evil as a force in the world. He even lets the people who dropped the bombs off the hook, citing the difficulty and pressure which would have driven their decision to annihilate the planet.
The writing style is universally solid and easily followed. Humour is artfully inserted into believable yet fittingly different dialogue, and description, when given is accomplished, consummate and informative. However, the real strength of this particular book relies on its brilliantly measured narrative, which dips with admirable facility into the minds of the characters, especially Towers. Isolated amongst the main characters as the one who has lost family in the war, his love for them does not diminish. Shute's accomplishment here is his skilful insertion of his narrative voice directly into Towers' thought processes. He manages to sensitively handle the love for his family, and the two levels of Dwight's acceptance of their death. He hints covertly but clearly that Towers knows they are dead, while giving a very believable account of why he buys them gifts and is convinced, not to madness, but convinced nonetheless, that he is going home to them. His unashamed purchase but slightly paranoid hiding of gifts, Moira's gift of her pogo stick, and his kissing her lightly in thanks are all achingly, beautifully pure literary moments, for which Shute deserves his lasting fame.
The problem for the reader is that, knowing the characters must die, one still gets rather attached to them, and the end of the book, of the world indeed, is just as unwelcome for us as it is for Shute's characters. The measure of his achievement is this genuine sorrow at the demise of these people, even though we knew beforehand that they were condemned to this fate. However, as is typical of Shute, we are left with a ray of hope at the end, which shines into the reader's desolate state of mind like a lighthouse. The beautiful admiration, which Moira actually feels for Dwight and his family (even if it is somewhat of a delusion), as he goes off to meet them should cheer the reader. It points to an eternal truth in the face of the end of human eternity.