“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
If you’re not reading a Nevil Shute book from time to time, you’re missing out on one of the great joys of reading pleasure. Shute’s ability to fashion a story out of the lives of ordinary people has few modern rivals. However, it’s his knack for seeing the best in all people that makes his books completely enjoyable. Pied Piper takes place in France at the outbreak of World War II – a time when it would be easy to have Nazi villains abound. But, Shute’s books are always filled with grace. Even when his main characters run into “enemies,” he chooses to humanize rather than caricaturize them. (In this context, humanize does not mean to degrade to the lowest passions of human nature but rather to reveal the commonality of thought and love that every person feels.) His tales are solid and dependable. You can count on them.
Pied Piper follows the story of John Howard, an elderly British widower, who decides to take a fishing trip to the mountains of France in the summer of 1939. Though Germany is threatening war with all of Europe, the invasion of France is too unimaginable. Yet when it comes, Mr. Howard must return to England. Before he does, he’s persuaded to escort two children back with him. A long day’s trip with two children under eight seems daunting to the septuagenarian, but when the Nazi occupation comes faster than expected, the trip becomes much more arduous. Along the way, the group picks up more and more children until it becomes a roving orphanage seeking the safety of Allied ground.
In the typical treatment one would expect for this storyline, it would become a depressing, heart-wrenching melodrama. Shute, however, presents a story filled with humor, patience, and love. There are efforts of brave endurance and scenes of pathos, but through the lens of the protagonist, Mr. Howard, it is shown how individuals can overcome war with good character. Polemic made irenic. Never preachy or judgmental, the tale’s even course has comedy and suspense with a large dose of good feeling. This will not go down as Nevil Shute’s strongest piece, but like all his books, worth the read.
6 stars out of 10
photo: Associated Press
Do you ever just want a good story? I’m not talking about a murder mystery, whodunnit, spy doublecross. I’m talking about a story with good characters with real emotions that you like. A story where it hardly matters where it goes because you’re just happy to go with it. For me, Pastoral was that kind of story.
Pastoral is a simple story of a Royal Air Force pilot that falls in love with a female officer on his base during the height of World War II. The situation of the time is tense (the main character flies many bombing sorties), but the relationship is not. The real battles are of the inner lives of the main characters – how can normal life work while the world is falling apart?
Nevil Shute is quickly becoming a favorite author of mine. Trustee from the Toolroom was one of my top reads last year. I gave it to family members for Christmas. It was a perfectly happy book. This book is not quite up to the same level as that one, but nevertheless, I found it most enjoyable. I wonder if I’m getting a little soft, but I delight in books where there are no bad characters. For lesser writers that would mean no story, but Shute writes great tales where you like everyone.
I will add that while this book is in essence a straight romance, Shute really is a master of action writing. The bombing operations read like you’re in the plane with the crew. The intensity of the physical drama pays off in the intensity of the emotional drama. This book should be a must read for fans of World War II aircraft.
My great uncle died while I was reading this novel. He was my last living blood relative to serve in the war. Losing him relegates that time truly to history for me. I’ll confess it added a poignancy to the story, a bittersweetness that made me wish it wouldn’t end. The title Pastoral is an interesting one for this book. I never see that word when associated with art or music that I don’t think of an idyllic rural scene but one always tinged with a little sadness. Maybe rural life has too much reality to be blindly perceived as fully happy. I don’t know, but just the title made me enjoy the book more.
7.5 stars out of 10
photo: Ryan McGuire