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On The Beach by Nevil Shute

Cover image © Vintage.
Those who know me well will know that I seldom act on book recommendations made by family or friends and that I often judge a book by a cover. Luckily, when my mother recommended On The Beach by Nevil Shute, after I had told her that I’d recently read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, I found the book reissued with a great cover.

Published in 1957, On The Beach tells the story of a small group of people in Australia in the post-Apocalyptic world of 1963. World War III has been and gone with territories in the northern hemisphere having destroyed each other with hydrogen and cobalt bombs. Those who had survived the direct attacks were then  eventually wiped-out by the slow movement southwards of the radioactive fallout cloud.

The novel mainly centres on the lives of five individuals. Peter Holmes lives with his wife Mary and their baby Jessica. Peter works for the Australian Navy and despite their lack of functioning ships, is called back to work to act as a liaison officer on the American submarine USS Scorpion, which due to the USA's demise, is under Australian command. Here Peter meets Dwight Towers, the captain of the submarine, and introduces him to Mary’s friend Moira Davidson. Finally, Moira’s distant relation, John Osborne is employed to monitor radioactivity levels on the submarine in between restoring a Ferrari racing car.

When radio signals are received from somewhere near Seattle, Dwight, Peter and the rest of the USS Scorpion’s crew must set sail to see whether there really is life remaining in the northern hemisphere. John Osborne, working for the Australian government, travels with them to see whether a professor’s hypothesis of the radioactivity reducing quicker than expected is actually true. It could be the last chance for humankind. 

All the time, reports of the radioactive cloud moving further south come through from Australia’s Northern Territory, then Queensland, Salisbury (Harare), Montevideo and Melbourne.

In many ways, Nevil Shute’s apocalypse is the calmest imaginable and perhaps how I would like it all to end – should it ever come to that. There is none of the Hollywood-style mass-hysteria in On The Beach, but rather the tension is felt in the nature of the characters' relationships with each other. 

Will the men on the submarine return, before the radioactive cloud reaches Melbourne? Will Moira and Dwight’s relationship flourish? Will everyone get to finish off their small, but important, jobs before the end comes? What will become of Jessica if Mary and Peter die first?

As you read the novel, you are aware of the author’s feelings on nuclear weapons and the selfish attitudes of the larger countries in the world. Even though it is one of the newcomers to the nuclear-armed party who starts the war, it is the larger global powers that allow their own paranoia and interests to subsequently wreak havoc on the world. 

As is the case with today’s geopolitical world, it is always seems to be the innocent bystanders who are affected – the whole southern hemisphere in this case.

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