August Books 4) On The Beach, by Nevil Shute

One of those classics which I’d never quite got around to reading. It tends to get claimed as sf because it is set in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic nuclear war (in 1961, started by Albania nuking Naples believe it or not). But in fact it is a very middle-class story about people dying: facing up to their inevitable death from radiation poisoning, as the deadly dust gradually makes its way south to Melbourne. (Would be interested to hear from John Wyndham experts if they consider this as a “cosy catastrophe” novel.)

Many years ago I had read what was purportedly a slightly risqué extract from this novel (about a woman “risking her assets” by cooking stir fries while topless). I am disappointed to report that there is no such passage in the book.

And knowing Shute as I now do, that’s not very surprising. There is dignity and decency here rather than passion. The love affair which partly drives the narrative is determinedly not consummated; one of its protagonists, the last American military commander on earth, decides not to poison himself as the others all do, but to go down with his ship. In places the narrative voice is so sparse that it is skeletal. It is almost a novel without suspense, since there is no mystery about whether or not the characters will survive.

But in the end, the theme of encroaching death is one that we all have to deal with individually sooner or later. Shute is one of the rare writers to have applied it to a whole group of people – the last of humanity – and carried out the thought experiment as to how people like him (and I suppose people rather like me) would react. And the end comes with a dramatic understatedness, true to the epigraph from T.S. Eliot (which supplies also the eponymous beach):

    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

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