‘On the Beach’ by Nevil Shute

On-The-Beach

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 320 pages; 2009.

As a teenager in the 1980s, I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War nuclear arms race. At the time there was a very real fear that Armageddon was just around the corner. It frightened me so much I still remember writing English essays about nuclear war and angst-filled poetry about world peace.

Australia may have seemed a long way away from the two main adversaries, the USA and Soviet Union, but anxiety about the nuclear threat was very real at that point in time.

I still remember the terrifying image, depicting Sydney Harbour after a nuclear strike, on the front cover of Red Sails in the Sunset, an album by Australian rock band Midnight Oil. I bought it upon release in 1984 and remember feeling incredibly impassioned by the lyrics, which were filled with political messages about the nuclear threat we all faced. (The band’s singer, Peter Garrett, even went on to stand for the Nuclear Disarmament Party although he didn’t get voted in.)

Not long afterwards, in 1985, the McClelland Royal Commission investigated secret British nuclear tests on Australian soil, including Maralinga, in the 1950s. I still remember the veterans who had been subject to the blasts being interviewed on TV news broadcasts. This short film (below) sheds further light on what happened.


Meanwhile a Greenpeace campaign was in full swing to protest against French military testing of nuclear weapons on Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific. The protest turned nasty when the French Foreign Intelligence Services sunk Greenpeace’s flagship, The Rainbow Warrior, in the port of Auckland in July, 1985.

It was about this time that I read Nevil Shute’s nuclear holocaust novel On the Beach. I was 15 or 16 and remember being totally gripped by the story. It all seemed unbearably sad, totally realistic and did absolutely nothing to dispel my fear of Armageddon being just around the corner!

Twenty-five years later, would it live up to my memory of it?

Before I answer that, let me explain the story.

It is 1963. The entire population of the Northern Hemisphere has been wiped out by nuclear war and now the radioactive cloud is drifting slowly south, killing everyone in its wake. As the most southerly city on the Australian mainland, Melbourne is the last bastion for human habitation. And it is here that the American Navy has retreated. When a faint morse code signal is detected coming from the United States, a submarine is dispatched to make contact…

The novel is largely set in the naval dockyards of Williamstown (which, ironically, is the Melbourne suburb of my birth) and the fictional Falmouth (which, I suspect is a town on the Mornington Peninsula), although a great part of the action is set on a nuclear-powered submarine. However, I use the term “action” quite lightly, because not a great deal happens in the book.

Essentially, everyone knows that death is looming large but instead of going completely crazy about the situation, all the characters carry on their day-to-day lives as if everything is hunky dory. In Shute’s world it’s clear that civilisation is robust and there’ll be no succumbing to riots or looting or anything immoral. Indeed, there might only be two weeks to live but if you want to go and buy a lawn mower, you can simply pop into the local hardware store and you’ll receive the usual friendly customer service to which you’ve become accustomed. I suspect this business-as-usual approach is merely a reflection of the times in which it was written (On the Beach was first published in 1957), but it seems quite odd and dated today.

In fact, there’s a lot about this novel that appears ludicrous when viewed with modern eyes, and I have to admit that there were times I thought the characters behaved so ridiculously or said unbelievably silly things that I wanted to throw the book across the room. After awhile I began to view the entire novel as a comedy, and while there’s certainly a lot of gallows humour in it, I’m not sure that was Shute’s intention.

Peter looked at the price tag, picked up the mower, and went to find the assistant. “I’ll take this one,” he said.
“Okay,” said the man. “Good little mower that.” He grinned sardonically. “Last you a lifetime.”

For the most part I found the characterisation poor — the male characters in particular are almost indistinguishable from one another — but there was one shining light in the form of Moira Davidson, a 20-something single woman, who has a penchant for drinking vast quantities of brandy and flirting with men. She strikes up a platonic friendship with Dwight Towers, the captain of the US Scorpion, around which most of the story hinges.

Mary, the wife of Peter Holmes (the central character), is also well-drawn, in the sense that her sheer naivety makes her stand-out from the rest of the cast.

But strangely for a book about the death of the human race, there’s very little emotion aside from one touching scene in which Mary and Peter discuss how to deal with their young baby, Jennifer, when the radiation sickness strikes.

Shute also tends to write in a fairly stilted manner, using phrases that seem ridiculous — “The breakfast came upon the table” — and referring to characters by their nationality or occupation — “The Australian”, “The scientist”, “The Commander” — which grate with constant repetition.

While On the Beach is an entertaining, dare I say it, fascinating read, its purpose is not so much literary but cultural, revealing as it does a 1950s mindset coming to terms with the end of the world. I suspect this is one of those novels you love first time round, but a second reading only serves to reveal its weaknesses and Shute’s writerly quirks.

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12 thoughts on “‘On the Beach’ by Nevil Shute

  1. I didn’t realise the novel is set in Williamstown. It makes it slightly more exciting! I feel slightly sorry for Tassie for being left out as the most southerly state in Australia. Wouldn’t that have been the safer location?
    I noticed Shute’s stilted lines in ‘Alice’ but I enjoyed the story too much. He seems to write strong female characters.

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  2. Thank you for this. What is odd is that I love Nevil Shute’s novels, but I agree with almost all of your criticisms of this book. Despite all the flaws that you point out, maybe even because of some of the flaws, I love his work. There is something about the stilted, corny prose and fairly shallow characterizations that I find oddly appealing. Like a 1940s film where everyone is crisply ennunciating their rapid fire dialog.

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  3. How fascinating. Nevil Shute was one of my very favourite authors when I was a girl and I recall loving On the Beach. I read all his output but a few stick in my mind more than others, including this one, A Town Like Alice (of course) and Requiem for Wren. I don’t remember the details of the books, only the broad outlines, though – what sticks in my mind about this one is that it was a war in the middle east that started it all – and from what you say it is perhaps best left as one of those books that I can remember fondly rather than now going back to re-read.

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  4. Oh dear, I remember reading this – and heaps of other books by Shute and really enjoying them.
    But that was a long time ago. I recently listened to his autobiography as an audio book and found it unbearable. He came across as the ultimate caricature of a pompous, crusty old British gent!
    Lisa (in Bilbao today)

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  5. Great review. I see similar things with other Cold War novels. Somehow it’s all cliche now, even when, at the time, it seemed so relevant! I read On the Beach in high school when I was on a Shute binge with my mom. We also read alot of Helen MacInnes, which seems linked to Shute in my memory. I fear I’d find the same thing if I went and read those again.
    One Cold War novel that has really stood the test of time is The Spy Who Came In from the Cold…I read it again recently and it’s magical in how subtle it is, even if some of the British military come off as ignorant buffoons.

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  6. Perfect review kimbofo. I was a huge Nevil Shute fan in my teens. When my friends read Georgette Heyer I read every Nevil Shute novel there was. However, I reread On the beach a few years ago for an online bookgroup and could barely contain my disappointment. You’ve nailed my reaction perfectly – and I do love your intro.

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  7. I thought what you said was fascinating and brought a new dimension to my understanding of the book which I really liked. I think we were lucky to have someone with your background to give us a bit more information especially concerning all the nuclear testing that went on near Australia as it was something I knew very little about. Wonderful review Kim.

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  8. Ignore the prevailing literary tics of the time – God knows there’s plenty around now to annoy future readers – and enjoy the story. Kenneth Cook uses many of the same in Wake in Fright(/i>, written in the same era.

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  9. I guess he couldn’t set it in Tassie cos he needed the naval base, but we did wonder why all those Melburnians didn’t simply flee south to buy some extra time.

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  10. Thanks for all your comments guys. I do think this is one of those novels that when you read it first time round you find it really enjoyable and get swept away by the story, but it doesn’t really stand up to a second reading, probably because you now know what happens and all the other bits — stilted conversations, implausible behaviour — get in the way.

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