This Is the End: On the Beach by Nevil Shute

38180Not 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.

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  1. Now that I’ve read this too, I can say it gave me disturbing dreams too. Weird dreams about not being able to breath properly.

    Like your husband, I had thoughts of boats heading south, but, then where would you go? Dying in the freezing cold in Antarctica didn’t appeal to me. Although as Sydneysiders, we may have jumped in the car and headed to our family on the Mornington Peninsula (who live not far from where Nevil Shute actually lived) to get an extra month together.

    Have you seen the two movies about this book? Is one better than the other?

  2. Ideally didn’t expect the book to end the way it did & was rather stunned at the end. I’ve read a few of Shute’s books & enjoyed them all. Pied Piper is one of my favourites – an unusual protagonist, set in France WW2. came via Brona’s AusReading link up.

      • This was my very first book by Nevil Shute, but I really want to read more. It is quite something when you are told how a story will end and then you still surprised that it happens that way. I think my library only has A Town Like Alice, but I will keep my eyes open for Pied Piper. Thanks for stopping by, Carol.

  3. Okay I definitely have to read this one. Nice review. Sounds agonizing. One of the first apocalyptic books or movies perhaps. I’d like to see the old movie of it as well from 1959. Gregory Peck.

  4. A really stirring review. I tried reading this one when I was younger, and I had a hard time getting into it, but now my interest is certainly rekindled. It seems a pretty amazing thing for the author to provoke the reader to feel that same kernel of hope the characters felt.

  5. Great review and so glad you enjoyed the book! Due to our similar reactions, it is clear the book’s goal is to make the reader think: What would I do in the same situation? I was floored by the calm reactions and in some cases denial as the doom was approaching.

    • Thanks for bringing the book to my attention! And yes, I was taken aback by so many people’s denial, but I suppose it’s a protective mechanism. It is quite an achievement to write a book that is still so relevant after 60 years.

  6. I read A Town Like Alice in my teens after the success of the TV series with Bryan Brown and promised myself to read more Neville Shute. Thirty years later, I have yet to follow up on that promise. But when I do, it will be this book.

    Nancy reviewed it for AusReadingMonth a couple of years ago which piqued my interest. I believe there are also a couple of movies you could explore as well.

    Thanks for joining in AusReadingMonth with such an interesting review 🙂

    • Nancy was the one who put this book on my radar. I’m glad I read it. I’d like to read A Town Like Alice, too, but my library doesn’t own it, unfortunately. Something for next year’s AusReading Month. 🙂

  7. The only Shute I’ve read is ‘A Town Like Alice’. I’d never had him pegged as a dread-filled author – it just goes to show, you should never judge a writer on the basis of a single book!

  8. Don’t think this one is for me… but Into Thin Air has never really left me … all memories & thoughts of it recently fuelled by the recent movie Everest which I watched at the cinema and was gripped from start to finish despite I now know that story so well having read many of the other survivors accounts too.

  9. I haven’t read many books where there has been no hope at all. Maybe The Road – was there hope at the end of that? I can’t remember. Anyway, this sounds so good, even if it might make me feel like taking one of those cyanide pills.
    I hope your dreams are a bit sweeter these days, and that you’ve moved on to something a bit lighter! Great review!
    P.S. I have no idea what I would do, but for lack of any better ideas I might also be inclined to stay home with the kids and ‘play’ as much as possible. There would be no more fights over junk food and bedtimes, because who cares?

    • I don’t remember any hope in The Road, but it’s been years since I’ve read it. On the Beach was definitely very good, despite it being so bleak I’m glad I read it. It reminded me to make time for those things that are important to me that sometimes fall by the wayside. And I’m almost glad now that there are fights about junk food and bedtimes, because there’s still a reason to care. 🙂

  10. It’s years since I read any Nevil Shute, but your great review has reminded me of what a great author he is. Must re-read sometime. I would build a rocket and go to Mars… there’s bound to be instructions on how to do that on the internet somewhere… 😉

  11. I read this book years ago and remember how vividly it affected me. Now you’ve made me want to reread it! I also remember that decades ago PBS or the BBC produced A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. Let me tell you, that program series was utterly entrancing. In fact, I don’t remember now if I ever tracked down the book and read it after; burned into my memory are the images from the program.
    Also the Australian YA series by John Marsden comes to mind, the first book being Tomorrow, When the War Began. I read this series quite a while ago and was entranced by it, I thought the writing was outstanding.
    So, we still do have the nuclear threat, and climate change. I just reviewed The Collapse of Western Civilization on my blog in preparation for the UN Climate Conference at the end of the month. You might want to give it a look – it’s only 50 pages, but it’s well done and very unsettling.
    (I blog about positive, joyful books too, though!)
    Thanks for reminding me again of Nevil Shute.

    • Thank you, Valorie. I do want to read A Town Like Alice now. My library doesn’t have it, so I have to keep my eyes open for a copy elsewhere. I will take a look at your post about The Collapse of Western Civilization.

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