“In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river”
-T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
I’ve been avoiding On the Beach ever since I became addicted to Nevil Shute’s novels. Partly because it’s his most acclaimed piece of writing (or at the very least, the most widely read) and partly because of the subject matter. The book takes place in the nebulous time of the late 1960’s after a nuclear war has devastated the world. Fallout has already rendered the Northern Hemisphere completely uninhabitable, and the radioactive cloud is slowly moving southward. The story follows a small group of friends in Australia as they live under the approaching inevitability of death. It is a powerful tale of hope and honesty and love.
I’ll be the first to say that if you are a reader and you’ve let a year go by without reading a Nevil Shute book, then you have missed out on a joy in your life. His books reveal the best parts of humanity in a way that doesn’t make them trite, but instead, noble. Not the kind of nobility that makes you want to rule and lead, but the kind that makes you want to live better and enjoy the every day. On the Beach excels at getting to the heart of who we are. Shute rarely has enemies in his books. It’s like each novel is a refutation of the belief that one must hate something in this world to prove their worth. Even at the end of all things, there is room for love to overcome.
The action follows several naval officers, both Australian and American, as they seek to find a solution to the catastrophe. Now that the world’s purpose can be wholly turned to survival, there is a turn from the day to day struggles of life. Relationships are real and vital. Enjoyment of each hour is what is looked for. It is like a quest for utopia in the darkest hour. The recent Seveneves by Neal Stephenson pushes for an idea that survival is the most important ideal. On the Beach, while not against self-preservation, posits that survival is not the highest ideal. In fact, maybe it’s integrity.
There are solutions to the world destroying itself, and Nevil Shute has done a service in making us think about it. While this book was extremely enjoyable in an eyes half full of water kind of way, I can see why one might not rush out to read it. It will move you if you do.
8 stars out of 10
photo: Forrest Cavale