On the Beach ( 1957)
by Nevil Shute Norway
Read this book as my selection for the AusReading Month hosted by Brona’s Books!
- Nevil Shute Norway (1899 – 1960) was born in London.
- He worked as an aeronautical engineer.
- During the Second World War he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve where he worked on developing secret weapons.
- Soon after 1945 he emigrated to Australia and made his home in Langwarrin, Victoria.
- High taxation and what he felt to be the decadence of Britain, with the spirit of personal independence and freedom dying, led him to leave the Old Country.
- His most celebrated novels include Pied Piper (1942), No Highway (1948), A Town Like Alice (1950) and On the Beach (1957).
In a survey of Nevil Shute fans….Trustee from the Toolman (1960) was chosen as his best book.
Genre: Apocalyptic fiction. This book cannot be categorized as true science fiction since the means of destruction is no longer “imaginary”.
Title: The novel’s title is derived from a quote from the famous poem by T.S. Elliot “The Hollow Men”.
- In this last of meeting places
- We grope together
- And avoid speech
- Gathered on this beach of the tumid river…
- This is the way the world ends
- This is the way the world ends
- This is the way the world ends
- Not with a bang but a whimper.
Table of Contents: The book contains 9 chapters each between 18-22 pages.
- The book was originally published by W. Heinemann, London.
- I’m reading a Vintage Classics versions on the book.
- The series style is fresh, stylish and modern and they look different to any other classics available.
- The bookcover is wonderful and caught my eye immediately.
- The artist is Mick Wiggins has been a professional free-lance illustrator for over 25 years.
- The recipient of numerous awards for his Book Cover and Editorial illustrations.
- His style is “less is more”.
- I will try to collect as many of his classic book covers as I can!
Timeline: 1962 ( March – September)
- The setting for On the Beach is primarily smaller towns and rural locations near Melbourne, Australia and Port Phillip Bay, in southern Australia, and the city of Melbourne itself.
- Part of the book takes place aboard a nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Scorpion, which makes a major to the northern hemisphere, as far north as Seattle, Washington, and Kodiak, Alaska.
- The Scorpion is observing conditions and looking for signs of life after a nuclear war.
- It is presumed that the war, involving Albania, Egypt, America, Russia and China, has annihilated everyone in the northern hemisphere.
- Now radiation is slowly spreading southward and beginning to cause the residents of the southern hemisphere to get sick and die.
- This will continue until human life has vanished from the earth.
- Melbourne will be the last major city on earth to die.
Themes: The underlying theme that one would think about as the sand in the hourglass of life slowly trickles …. Are we alone? Have we connected with anyone? Have we failed? Have we loved? Have we been loved?
Commander Dwight Towers ( hero, model of decency, keeping up normal appearances, doing his duty to society, expecting to see his family in September and celebrate the childern’s birthdays.)
Moira Davidson ( heroine, heavy-drinking, disillusioned, vulnerable, in denial and will not face up to the inevitable. Often she is the one who asks the difficult questions. (pp 113) She observes Peter and Mary making long-term plans: “Someone’s crazy.”she said. “Is it me or them?”
Lt. Commander Peter Holmes (devoted husband and father, diligent, dutiful naval officer )
Mary Holmes (young housewife and mother, is happily devoted to her infant daughter, Jennifer and supports Peter’s career)
John Osborne ( young civilian scientific officer, assigned to Scorpion to monitor radiation levels and collect scientific data as the submarine conducts reconnaissance).
Trivia: Modern Library list of top 100 best novels contains 3 books by Nevil Shute: Trustee from the Toolroom, Town like Alice and On the Beach.
Trivia: While the city of Melbourne waits for death in the book On the Beach, Shute describes the population going about its daily business with law and order prevailing. Shute based this on the reaction he witnessed of Londoners during the blitz of 1940.
Trivia: 1959: The U.S. nuclear fast attack submarine Scorpion is launched. While unrelated to this story, it is interesting to note that the Scorpion was lost with all hands on May 22, 1968 in more than 10,000 feet of water 400 miles southwest of the Azores in the Atlantic. The ship was lost with two nuclear torpedoes onboard and its nuclear reactor. As a result, radiation monitoring of the site continues to this day. No significant nuclear contamination of the surrounding environment has yet been detected.
Trivia: The film On The Beach ( 1959) was nominated for 2 Oscars in 1960 ( best film editing and best music score). The Film won a Golden Globe that same year. ( best drama)
On The Beach is widely considered one of the most significant anti-war novels of the 20th century. It was a massive international phenomenon in the late 1950s and the book sold millions of copies. It seems to me no one ever reads this book anymore, even though it is often listed as one of the best novels written.
I wondered ……What drove Nevil Shute to write On the Beach?
It was the height of the Cold War in the 1950’s. At that time people the world over were coming to terms with the realization that man had invented a weapon that could see everyone wiped out at a near instant. When it came to the threat of nuclear war, Shute thought the whole concept total madness. He wanted to warn the world of the dangers of this type of warfare. Unfortunately 55 years after the publication of On the Beach, we are still confronted with a nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
I did not know what to expect from this book. I discovered that Shute’s writing style is calm and without the ‘shock effects’ one would expect in apocalyptic fiction. Still, the narrative is chilling to read.
Strong point: Shute’s use of ‘tragic irony’…. the words and actions of the characters contradict the real situation. ( pp 112) Peter and Mary discuss landscaping plans for the garden: “..another thing I ( Mary) want to do is to put in a flowering gum tree, here.” “Takes about five years to come into full bloom”, he said. “Never mind. A gum tree there would be just lovely in the summer”. At the end of the same chapter, Peter visits the chemists and asks for pills so that the end is painless for his wife an infant child. (pp 156) “…There’s no recovery. But you don’t have to die in a mess. You can die decently, when things begin to get bad.”
I found this book powerful, moving, chilling and upsetting. After a day’s reading it lingered in my mind. I kept asking myself: “….how would I react in the same situation…waiting for the end of life as we know it?” Nevil Shute took great care while writing the last chapter of the book…effective yet discreet to the last words
I would recommend reading this book, you won’t be disappointed. My next Nevil Shute book will be Trustee from the Toolman, his last novel.
I am so fascinated by Nevil Shute that I ordered his biography Parallel Motion ( 2011) by John Anderson. I want to know more about the man behind this book!
Expressions: ( Aussie)
To put up a blue ( to make an error or mistake)
Jinker: a timber jinker ( cart) used during the Australian Gold Rush
Gwen 12: Australian ‘weight saving’ plywood racing skiff (12 foot) designed In Melbourne by boat builder Charlie Cunningham in 1947.