On the Beach | Nevil Shute

What a powerful reading experience! On the Beach is a modern classic set in Melbourne in the 1950’s about the end of the world.

The Northern Hemisphere is gone.

A nuclear war between China, Russia and the USA has obliterated everything north of the equator. Australasia, South America and South Africa are now simply waiting for the cloud of fallout to drift south with the changing of the seasons.

The thing that really struck me about this post-apocalyptic book right from the start, was how polite and civilised everyone was about their imminent death. There was no panic, no fleeing, no looting, no disintegration of manners or ethics.

Everyone just got on with things. They went to work, raised their families, planted the garden with veggies for a season that they wouldn’t be alive to enjoy.

Heavy drinking and reckless behaviours did start to creep in towards the end, but it was such civilised recklessness – downing copious amounts of 50 year old port and racing Ferrari’s.

Despite my gentle jossing though, On the Beach is actually a rather disturbing read. The calm patience and knowing denial of our characters adds to the tension and the creeping sense of hopelessness. In an extraordinary act of will, the entire population has decided to not make a fuss. Instead they are determined to make the most of the time left to them. And it turns out that making the most of the time left to them looks rather like everyday life.

Spending time with your loved ones, pottering around the house and keeping busy with the usual things seems to mean the most to folks when you haven’t much time left. Kindness and generosity and caring remained important for everyone right to the very end – which was such a pleasant relief after watching the end of the world as imagined by the makers of The Walking Dead where everyone becomes so vicious and cruel.

I was also profoundly moved by their careful preparations for their pets right at the end when they realised that the radiation affected animals at a slower rate than humans.

“It’s not the end of the world at all,” he said. “It’s only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

Nevil Shute emigrated to Australia in 1950 with his family. He died in Melbourne in 1960.

Shute used fictional places as well as real towns and cities. Falmouth, where the story opens, is based on Frankston, the town that Shute lived in (or near) on the Mornington Peninsula. The race track Tooradin, is most likely, the race track on Philip Island where Shute raced for a while driving a white Jaguar XK140.

  • Nancy @ipsofactodotme read On the Beach for AusReadingMonth a couple of years ago – her review is here.
  • And TJ @My Bookstrings reviewed it last year here

P.S. The weather for our second weekend of #20booksofsummer was much better than the destructive #eastcoastlow and storms of last weekend. Glorious winter sunshine with the temp creeping up to about 20°C at lunch time. Lovely, although I’ve ended up with my first head cold for the year 😦

3/20 Books of Summer Winter

11 thoughts on “On the Beach | Nevil Shute

  1. Wonderful review and I loved the extra info about real towns and race track. I did not know this info!This book just subtly 'gets under your skin'. No panic, get the 'pills' and still they keep making plans for the garden. Uncanny. Tx for your kind ref to review. So glad you joined me in this 'On the Beach' experience.


  2. I read this a long time ago. I remember it being a superb but disturbing book. Such realistic story's of humanity's end tend to be. You raise a good point about the calmness surrounding the end of everything in this book. I think it adds a level of dread and horror that helps make this particular story unique.


  3. It must be thirty years at least since I read this and my memories of it are very vague. You've made me want to do a re-read… I do like the idea that people would be decent and kind if they knew that the end was coming – I'd like to think we would react better than most of the dystopian fiction suggests…


  4. It not only got under my skin, it got into my dreams!I found the no panic bit the most disturbing in the end. But then I was reminded of Paul Kalanithi's dying memoir that I read earlier in the year when he said,\”Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn't know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn't know when. But now I knew it acutely.\”


  5. I was fascinated by their reaction to this inevitable end. They weren't dreading it, thanks to the cyanide tablets, I guess. There was regret at the things they wouldn't do and some anger that the bloody rabbits would get to live longer than the humans, but most people seemed to find some kind of peace in knowing the whole family would die together, no-one would be left behind.Perhaps the experience of having some US navy in town showed the Melburnians that it could be worse – to still be alive knowing that all your family back home was gone.


  6. Shute's decent version of the end of the world reminded my of the John Wyndham's I read in my twenties. Maybe it's an English sensibility, or more accurately a 1950's English sensibility.As I get older, I appreciate the good manners and civility and respect for others that they represent more and more.


  7. I read this about 15 years ago whilst recovering from a run of night shifts. That I can remember that speaks for how much I loved it. While the language was dated in a by jove kind of way from memory I found it a compelling page turner. Sad to say I can't remember specifics now after all this time, and rather incredibly it was before blogging/goodreads etc so it's a wonder I can remember anything at all… Glad you liked it too.


  8. The dialogue did jar a little, with the US Commander constantly calling his girlfriend, 'honey', never using her name. But for the rest, I adored how polite everyone was to everyone else. So refreshing.I'm rather keen to check out both movie versions of this book now. Have you seen either of them?


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