Not since Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air has a book given me such vivid dreams as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. The most absurd dream involved trying to decide whether it was worth suing Taylor Swift’s Wifi provider for ripping her off, considering that human life would end in three months. The worst was having to watch my children die from radiation sickness. I can say with absolute certainty that On the Beach, my first read for Brona’s AusReading Month, will stay with me for a long time.
The premise of the book is bleak: After Russia and China dropped nuclear bombs onto each other, things accidentally got out of hand and the entire Northern Hemisphere was destroyed. Now, the radiation slowly makes its way south, with people in Melbourne having nine months before they will die. Every single character in the book knows that life will come to an end. How to deal with that?
The book centers around Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes of the Royal Australian Navy, who has a wife and 9-month-old daughter, and Navy Commander Dwight Towers, who was at sea when the United States was destroyed and made his way to Australia when it became clear that he could not stay in the Northern Hemisphere. His submarine, the U.S.S. Scorpion, is now one of only two naval vessels with operational mobility, and as the story opens, the two men are given the order to take the submarine north, to find out if there is any hope of life anywhere.
They make the trip north and return safely, but the most devastating aspect of this book is that, of course, there is no hope. And this is hit home time after time as the characters’ everyday lives collide with the certainty that there will be no “next year,” “next month,” and finally “next week.” Early on, when the end still seems far off, people party and drink and are mostly out to have a good time. There is no need for life savings anymore; no need to save a particularly good bottle of brandy. Of course there is lingering regret, particularly among young people, but it is not mentioned much.
Yet as time ticks down, the hopeless absurdity of the situation becomes more and more clear. Peter and Mary Holmes are busy making changes to their garden, planting flowers and buying a lawn mower for next year—which will never come. Dwight Towers is busy getting presents for his wife and kids in Connecticut, to surprise them with when he “goes home.” The Davidsons are busy getting their farm into good shape, so that it looks presentable to whoever might come after them. John Osborne buys a Ferrari to race, simply because he has always wanted to do that and because it doesn’t matter anymore whether he dies in a car crash or not. Politicians decide to open fishing season early because no one will be alive anymore in October. Finally, pharmacists hand out cyanide pills for those who want to die quickly.
The book was written in the 1950s, and sometimes, the characters felt a little dated in their actions. But that did not prevent me from feeling more and more dread as I read along. I held a little kernel of hope that maybe something miraculously would happen, that the end might not truly be the end. It occurred to me that this was probably not any different from the kernel of hope that drove the characters to plan for a future, even knowing there would be none.
I kept asking myself what I would do in their situation, and one answer was worse than the next. My husband said he would build a boat and just keep going south, because he wouldn’t just give up hope. He dismissed all the arguments I brought up for staying at home and enjoying our remaining time with the kids. We finally had to remind each other that we were starting to argue over a “What If” situation. Thankfully! Let’s hope we’ll never find ourselves in such a situation for real.