On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Released July 1, 1957
Published by Vintage International
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Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach officially wins the award for the most disappointing book that I’ve ever read.
On the Beach is a well-known classic of the genre. I’m honestly shocked that it took me so long to finally read it.
The novel was written after Nevil Shute, both an author and aeronautical engineer, moved from the U.K. to Australia. Set a year after a devastating worldwide nuclear war, a group of survivors in Melbourne, Australia live out their final days as a cloud of fatal radiation spreads across the Earth.
The characters deal with their impending demise in quite different ways. A young couple, Lieutenant Peter Holmes and his wife Mary, make plans for a garden; US Commander Dwight Towers attends to his naval duties, despite the US Navy no longer existing; Moria Davidson spends much of her time drinking; Professor John Osborne fulfills his lifelong desire to drive a racecar.
Shute’s book is very much a character-driven novel as opposed to a plot-driven one. There’s actually very little plot. We follow these characters as they attempt to live their lives as much as they are able to in what little time they have left. Meanwhile, the nuclear apocalypse that has taken place and destroyed the world is little more than an afterthought and plot device.
I found the novel dreadfully boring, and the characters had so little emotion that I was unable to care about them. The entire book felt detached to me. I had gotten my hopes up based on seeing how much praise the book had received. Here’s a paragraph from the book’s Wikipedia page, just to give you an idea:
Historian David McCullough, writing for The New York Times, called On the Beach “the most haunting evocation we have of a world dying of radiation after an atomic war.” The San Francisco Chronicle called it “the most shocking fiction I have read in years. What is shocking about it is both the idea and the sheer imaginative brilliance with which Mr. Shute brings it off.” Daily Telegraph called it “Shute’s most considerable achievement”, and The Times stated that it is “the most evocative novel on the aftermath of a nuclear war.” The Guardian commented that “fictions such as On the Beach played an important role in raising awareness about the threat of nuclear war. We stared into the abyss and then stepped back from the brink.” The Los Angeles Times described the novel as “timely and ironic… an indelibly sad ending that leaves you tearful and disturbed”, and The Economist called it “still incredibly moving after nearly half a century.”
My frustration grew as I read further into the novel. The main reason for this was Shute’s habit of building up an event that’s about to happen and then skipping over it entirely. For example, Commander Towers leads his submarine on a tour of the western coast of the U.S. up to Seattle, where strange radio signals have been detected. No one should have been able to survive in North America. Shute writes about the preparations for the journey, but then literally skips most of the trip until they get to Seattle. We get a brief look at one building in the city, where the radio tower is, and then they’re back in Australia. There’s more time spent on the characters drinking and fixing a race car than on the journey to America or on anything having to do with the apocalypse.
As I already mentioned, this is a character-driven story, so in a way I understand it. However, the characters are so flat that there needed to be some sort of plot to make up for it, and there wasn’t.
One aspect of the characters that I found hard to fathom was their unnatural calmness. They’re the last people in the world, and no one seems all that upset. There’s no rioting in the streets, hardly any crying, and people seem to just not care. I found it extremely unrealistic.
The science in this book is far from realistic, but I can’t hold that against it. Nuclear science and radiation weren’t fully understood in the 1950s when this book was written.
There are so many better post-apocalyptic novels out there, so I can’t recommend this one. I was so sad to discover how plain this novel was and how unemotional the writing felt. There have been two films made based on On the Beach, and I might give those a try, but as for the novel, save your time and read something else.