Watching the news, we’d be forgiven for believing the end of the world is upon us. Such millenarianism has a firm place in popular culture, in TV, film, literature, comics and, indeed, politics. But it is hardly new. Though today we are more likely to think about global viral pandemics, asteroids from space or a legion of the undead moaning outside our doors, I still have a vague memory of the paranoia of the nuclear threat of the 1980s.
When I think back on it, two of the books that stick out from my childhood are the brilliantly moving graphic novelby Raymond Briggs When the Wind Blows and Robert Swindellsgritty mid-grade novel Brother in the Land. I’m partial to a bit of end of the world fantasy as much as the next homo sapiens, and so it was I came across On the Beach by Nevil Shute in my search for a new voice on the topic.
On the Beach is not new, first published in 1957, but how refreshing it was. It is perhaps one of the most moving books I have ever read. Set in Australia after a nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere, the novel follows the fate of two naval officers, their family and their friends. One is Australian, the other an American submarine captain.
What made the book so wonderful is what made it so terrible. It is a masterpiece of dramatic foreshadowing. From the outset, we and all the characters know they are going to die because the fallout from the Northern latitudes is slowly making its way South. The question then becomes, how would people live out the last six months of their life, of all life, on Earth?
Even though set after a terrible holocaust, On the Beach is not a book of violence or terror or even angst. Its at times heart wrenching melancholy is in the goodness of people, in their tender care for each other. The reader is left wondering, how would I live if not only I but everyone had months to live, and when the inevitable horrible end came, how would I choose to face it.
It is in this delicate presentation of the most tragic that On the Beachmanages to be an indictment of war on a par with Slaughterhouse 5 as well as a celebration of humanity at its very best. A book as moving as it is personally reflective. Profound and gentle. A must read in these hysterical times (polysemy intended).
Nevil Shute Norway (17 January 1899 – 12 January 1960) was an English novelist and aeronautical engineer who spent his later years in Australia. He used his full name in his engineering career and Nevil Shute as his pen name to protect his engineering career from any potential negative publicity in connection with his novels, which included On The Beach and A Town Like Alice.
Review by Daniel Soule
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