on July 15, 2004
A great, simple book very well written and poignant. What's interesting about it is that as we enter the story, the nuclear war that will eventually doom the characters in the story has already occurred and is over. They are simply awaiting the lethal radioactive cloud to move down to the southern hemisphere and begin to kill everyone off. The people carry on their daily lives as if nothing has happened. But we see in several key scenes early in the book how painfully, heartbreakingly aware they really are. And that's the key power to the story. These people know they're doomed but what choice do they have except to continue on with their lives. The most painful scene I found in the book was how the young couple with the baby begin to plan out their garden for the next year knowing full well that they are not going to be around to see it. They're fooling themselves, obviously, but how else to cope with the inevitable.
In the end, the book has the same effect as a movie called "Testament" with Jane Alexander. You'll be depressed and feeling a little scared and hopeless.
This is not light reading.
The basic story is that Albania sends a plane with another country's markings to bomb the U.S. and we retaliate. However this is not a pacifist (don't build bombs book). This is not a sci-fi book. It could be a speculative fiction or just speculative.
The story begins after the war is completed and radiation is now covering the world. Australia is the last place to be covered. You read how different people are about to meat their end, some with hope, others with reckless abandon. Still there are those like the US sub commander Dwight Towers is loyal to his country to the end by not allowing U.S. property in the end to fall into the hands of the Aussies.
The book was written in the Cold War Era environment. So many people think that it is about countries and war; others think this story is some anti war story. The reality is that it is a study of people meeting a sure end and how they react. Other readers will balk at the actions of the people in this story; yet when they meet the same situation we will see how realistic the characters are. Still others will balk at the predictability of the characters. Still this is how many people get over a crisis by being predictable. It is these characteristics that make this novel timeless. Someone else must think so or they would not have made an updated version for our not too distant future.
on January 21, 2000
Mr. Shute had a wonderful scenerio for the end of the world in his book. Now if only he had given the idea to an author who knew how to write. This novel moved excrusiatingly slow and his repetitve australian dialect added nothing to help; if not hurt it. Out of all the books I have read, I would have to say that this one ranks among the top 10 worst in language usauge and sentence structure.
on April 12, 2014
"On the Beach" is both a book and a movie from 1957 and 1959 respectively. A well crafted movie ideally should be complimentary to the original book, and Stanley Kramer's movie is certainly complimentary. Although this is a book review, it is appropriate in this case however, that a review of the book and the movie together makes any reflection on the ideas within the story richer.
The main story line of "On the Beach" is about the end of all life on earth as a result of radiation poisoning after a disastrous nuclear war in 1964. The obvious message is the folly of nations, armed with weapons that they dare not use and the consequences of using them. The movie pursues that populist angle with the final scene being of a large banner strung over a public square stating "There is still time...brother." The final message that there was still time to address the concerns over nuclear war in the 1950s and 60s is the one that initially received the most publicity.
But, "On the Beach" is more than the threat of nuclear weapons.The story takes place in Melbourne, Australia as a deadly radiation moves slowly, over many months, from the northern hemisphere to the southern, providing time for us to know the characters as they wrestle with the idea of their individual and collective demise. The underlying meanings of "On the Beach" however, are more subtle and timeless than the obvious folly of nuclear war. The title is a metaphor for the good memories the characters take away when reflecting on the final meaning of their lives. Towards the end of the movie there is a scene where one smiling young couple reflects over how they first met on the beach and the joys of love, marriage and parenthood that came from that meeting. Some character's lives are complete, others fall short of their dreams and aspirations, but life is not about quantity or if they had it all or not, it is making the best of the opportunities offered and not crying over the inevitable shortcomings. It is about accepting our lot in life with dignity and self-respect. The double-meaning of the title "On the Beach" is about having lived a good life.
The concerns over nuclear war have faded somewhat today, but "On the Beach" addresses how we meet the timeless issue of death. And that is the lesson of "On the Beach", as all people die. How we face death says something about how we faced life. Throughout the story people continue to go on with their lives and even towards the end, when all hope is lost, they are still tidying up their gardens and arranging things for after they are gone. It is about duty, of self-respect and doing the right thing. One of the main characters, Commander Dwight Towers, is given the stark choice of either spending his final moments comforting, and in the comfort of, the woman he has recently fallen in love with, or fulfilling his duty by scuttling his submarine at sea and ending his own life by going down with his ship. He chooses, in this case, duty. His final act represents how he lived his life and what he saw as the stronger truths to himself, service life, his crew and the family he left behind. He and others in the novel quietly strive to remain true to what was important in their life, even at the end.
That commitment to duty, of being true to how one lives and lived, is reflected in the dignity of how one dies. There is no right answer to the question of what constitutes a dignified death, as no one else truly shares that final moment. Nor, can anyone provide the answer for you. Ultimately, each character in both the book and the movie must find individual dignity on their own terms. Some meet it with their spouse, others alone, some quietly, some with understated defiance, but all manage it with dignity. There are differences in characters and even individual endings between the novel and the movie, but they are minor. In fact the differences in some endings are complimentary as they make the point that various endings are possible and all can still be dignified.
The argument above is not for, or against, the current controversy of assisted suicide to alleviate pain and suffering at the end of life. The message of "On the Beach" is "to thine own self, be true." Read the book, watch the movie. Better yet do both and reflect on the real meaning of a good life.
on July 7, 2004
I'd heard about this book for years; finally got 'round to reading it. A year or so after a nuclear war, fought entirely in the Northern Hemisphere, folks on the southeast coast of Australia await their fate: a radioactive wind carried around the earth.
Shute was not writing high art here: @times it sounds almost like reportage, but he manages to maintain a modicum of suspense throughout the novel by placing his characters in semi-routine situations that are always circumscribed by their finality: this is the last time we will ever...
A bland scientist cuts loose in an annual auto race; a couple spends their last hours together fishing in the mountains; another couple landscapes their yard until they're too weak to stand. The exchange betw. the submarine captain & the escaped crewman Swain is frighteningly unbearable in its blandness: "I know how you feel, sailor," sighs CDR Towers, as Swain chugs across the sub's path in a motor boat, just off the coast of his deserted hometown in Washington State.
On the Beach was a super-quick read: the messages were not hidden but revealed in conversations among the characters. If we had the chance, would we do anything differently? Has anybody recorded a history of this?
The book end with the inevitable, the deaths of all the characters, & it just doesn't matter whether people survive in Tasmania or New Zealand, for their deaths won't be long in coming.
on June 4, 2004
After being forced to read this my junior year of high school in English class, one of my friends hated it so much that he wrote a song called "Nevil Shute Can Kiss My *#&." And my mother was so scarred after seeing the movie version as a young girl that she gets the creeps whenever she hears the song "Waltzing Matilda." Be that as it may, this remains one of my favorite books.
Set in Australia, the book opens with a horrific situation--the rest of the world has been wiped out due to nuclear warfare, and Australians, who were completely innocent in the skirmish which touched off the world's destruction, are the last people alive in the last non-radioactive zone in the world. Unfortunately for them, the winds are slowly carrying radioactive particles further and further into the southern hemisphere, and the residents of the continent are simply waiting for the poison to bring certain death. Depressing? Sure. A chilling warning of what could happen to the human race if just one person pushes that proverbial red button? Absolutely.
Nevil Shute does a great job developing the characters and making you identify with them, from a young married couple with a new baby and a lonely young single woman to an American officer who just happened to be in his submarine with his crew when the war broke out, thus saving their lives and forcing him and his crew to live with the knowledge that everyone they love is gone and their hometowns are uninhabitable. This story brings the reality of nuclear war home, and is as relevant in this day and age as it ever was.
on April 7, 2004
I have read this book twice now - with a space of 14 years in between - and I found I got a lot more out of it and remembered quite a lot from the first time. It was and remains the only book I've ever read that caused me to have tears streaming down my face at the end. The realism with which Shute presents his plot and its concept - the immediate after-math of an atomic/hydrogen war and the slow spreading of a radioactive envelope in the earth's atmosphere toward the Southern Hemisphere - is scary. With the approaching radioactivity comes the DOOM of the main characters of the story who live in Melbourne, Australia and who include among them a displaced U.S. submarine captain. What Shute offers us here is the ultimate "what-if". What if this REALLY happened? How would any human being react if he/she could literally see the End coming and could not stop it? Shute's characters are haunting in that they are so REAL themselves just in the way they lash out in anger and moral injustice or recoil in overwhelming despair or even just succumb to numbing apathy. It is the infinite care and love with which Shute creates and develops them and portrays them to us that makes this not a hysterical sermon but a human story. Then he leaves them to die. As a reader you are devastated because you are left with nothing. Each of the characters in the end has to find their own way to die and the very last one is the one who seemed to have the most life and the most promise and the most vitality. Do I recommend this book? YES. You will never forget it.
on November 6, 2003
This book is not for those of the action-packed "post-apocalyptic" genre. This is for those of us who like to think "what if" for more than mere entertainment. You won't find bullet-riddled car chases or fights, and only the barest mention of revelry. There's no sex. No real violence (save some auto racing). Nobody even seems to raise their voice that much.
Perhaps that's why this book is so creepy. The ordinary, undramatic drama of living with the knowledge of impending death. People deal with this all the time, but rarely en masse -- cancer victims, AIDS sufferers, etc. In fact, our culture has tried very hard to erase the thought of death from our minds; it is deemed "inaccessible" to the plebean masses, something relegated to goths and the morbidly depressed.
Truth is, we need shots of this in our society like we need polio vaccines. Ironically, our stress-induced illnesses, which bring death sooner, could be greatly alleviated if we stopped running from the idea that we're going to die. In a way, this book is an "Ecclesiastes" for the layperson and non-believer alike: it's a wake up call, reminding us each "you're going to die; so what are you going to do about it till then?"
The difference is, in this book, they know WHEN it's going to happen. A mixed blessing, to say the least, but one we can benefit from if we will just swallow that bitter pill (no in-joke intended here).
As an anxiety-prone perfectionist high-achiever, I *need* books like this to scrub off the worry and preoccupation and guilt over personal failures. I *need* to be reminded that life is about more than achievement - we all live as if our careers, social status, accomplishments, and expectations are the reason for living. But if we knew we were shortly to die, how much would those things matter? How much anxiety would just drop off of us if life became about more than achievement and distraction, about more than frenzied activity and chemical relaxants?
Books such as this, while not giving us complete answers, do help to point the way.
on July 29, 2003
In my opinion, this book is, today, wrongly classified as "science fiction". Being written in 1957, and a product of an incipient Cold War, maybe it was science fiction back in the fifties, but now "On the beach" is more like "apocalyptic fiction".
The story is about what could have happened if the northern countries decided to strike nuclear attacks on each other in 1961. Two years later, the whole upper part of the globe has fallen under the radioative cloud, ant there's no one left. Because of the wind patterns, this dooming cloud is slowly reaching southern countries like Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Dwight Towers is the commander of one of the two remaining submarines existent in the US Navy, now based on Melbourne. There, he meets Moira Davidson, a young alcoholic woman, and her two friends, Australian navy-man Peter Holmes and his wife, Mary, and they have to cope with, literally, the end of the world.
"On the beach" is not an action book, and it's not about heroic achievements to save what remains of Earth. This is a book of sorrow and regret. Nevil Shute's characters can be divided between those who have accepted their terrible fate, and those who will deny it until the end. That's what is most interesting, and most depressive too.
Not a long book, "On the beach" seems to drag on for the first three-quarters, only setting a gray but necessary background, but the final chapters are like the water running down the drain in an emptying sink: twisty, fast-paced and hypnotic. Yes, hypnotic is a good word. The reader will keep reading, trying himself to look for ways out, only to discover that sometimes reality is more powerful than imagination.
"On the beach" is sad all the way. In fact, the title alone is very depressive, once the reader understand its meaning, disclosed on a poem in the first page, and in the very last line. But it is also a powerful reading, one that will stick to the reader's mind after the book is finished. And, after all, this surely could have happened; in fact, Nevil Shute could have been a prophet. We all have to be grateful that he wasn't.
on June 16, 2003
The question of what one would do if the world were coming to an end is the premise of Nevil Shute's 1957 novel "On the Beach." Despite being half a century old, the novel is powerful and timeless in its portrayal of the narrow tightrope we have walked ever since the first nuclear explosion lit up the skies over New Mexico on that morning in July 1945.
Two years have passed since an all-out nuclear war destroyed Earth's northern hemisphere, and people remain alive only in the southern hemisphere, particularly in Australia, where the story takes place. But not for long, as global weather patterns are slowly but steadily blowing the lethal fallout southwards and radiation counts are inching higher. As the unavoidable doom grows closer, people react in various ways. One family, the wife in deep denial, goes about planting next year's flowerbeds and charting their infant daughter's future. A young woman finds solace in endless bottles of alcohol. A respected scientist realizes his dream of becoming a racecar driver. An American naval officer whose family was killed during the war takes refuge in military discipline and protocol. And the government quietly manufactures instant-death suicide pills for when the coming radiation sickness becomes too painful to further withstand.
When the novel was originally published, the hydrogen bomb was a recent invention and we were told how recovery from an atomic war merely involved putting brick back on top of brick. When I first read it in the early 1980s, the Americans and the Soviets routinely threatened each other with obliteration and films like "The Day After" and "Threads" seared our collective consciousness with images of what life could be like after a nuclear war. Today, nations are invaded for allegedly preparing to build nuclear weapons by other nations who then turn around and plan a new generation of nuclear weapons for their own use.
But in Shute's vision, there is no rebuilding, no "after." There is only the impending human extinction. Plausible? Possibly. Bleak? Certainly. But the book takes such an inexorable approach to its subject that the inevitable moment of The End leaves one shattered and drained.
"On the Beach" is a powerful read, one that should be required for anyone who believes that a nuclear war can be fought and won, that any nation's security depends on the ability to not just defeat but utterly annihilate a real or potential adversary, that our freedom somehow depends on our remaining underneath a sword of Damocles composed of ever more numerous and terrifying weapons.