First published back in 1957 ‘On the Beach’ was one of the last novels by the British-Australian author Nevil Shute, before his death in January of 1960. With the eventual end of WWII still fresh in everyone's minds, Shute produced a powerful post-apocalyptic tale set during the after effects of a very short lived and devastating WWIII.

DLS Synopsis:
After Albania sets off a nuclear attack on Italy, a chain of catastrophic retaliations takes place, resulting in a short lived but utterly devastating World War III that sees the entire northern hemisphere void of any form of life from the widespread nuclear fallout.

Furthermore, strong global air currents have been slowly pushing this radioactive fallout southwards, into the remaining areas of human population.  In these last few months of humanities existence on the planet, the remaining population live out their final time in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the most southern areas of South America. 

Life in Melbourne, Australia continues almost as normal, with the impending doom of mankind constantly a burden on everyone’s mind.  Nevertheless, the population still try to get to grips with their inevitable death.  But all of that changes when a scrambled Morse code signal comes in from a coastal area in Seattle.  With all of the US now deep within contaminated land, the signal brings out a small glimpse of hope that somehow, people have managed to survive.

With that, one of the last American submarines in serviceable action is sent to Seattle in the hope of locating any survivors.  The possibility that anyone could withstand the lethal effects of the nuclear fallout brings a potential for hope that just can’t go ignored.  And so, American Navel Captain Dwight Towers is sent out in the nuclear powered submarine USS Scorpion together with a small crew including Australian Naval Officer Peter Holmes and scientist John Osbourne.

The men know that they will be leaving behind everything that is important to them, in order to take on this last and very possibly final mission for the whole of mankind.  The lethal radioactive fallout is still on course for Australia, its total annihilation of mankind almost inevitable.  Their last hope is this signal.  A small chance that mankind could somehow survive.

Meanwhile, life must go on.  Even in the face of such unrelenting devastation of human life, those that have time to enjoy what time they have left, do so, in whatever way is best for them.  And those that have lost loved ones already take solace in the fact that their time is near too...

DLS Review:
In ‘On The Beach’ Shute has crafted a breath-taking vision of humankind as it faces imminent annihilation by its own foolish hands.  On the very brink of total extinction, those few remaining pockets of humanity do the only thing that they can do – they continue to live (almost) as normal.  And the effect of such a head-in-the-sand action is more heart wrenching than you would have ever imagined it to be.

Shute shows us a selected handful of individuals as they prepare themselves for their imminent doom.  And here we see the real heart and soul of the tale.  People carrying on with their usual day-to-day lives, maintaining their gardens and keeping up with their household chores.  Others are perusing their lifelong ambitions, racing sports cars for the final time, recklessly pushing the cars to the limit knowing that if they were to die there and then, what difference would it make?

It’s the utter hopelessness of the entire situation that is constantly at the forefront of the tale; echoed over and over again within every conversation and action by those remaining.  Desperation is evident everywhere, but only subtly hinted at amongst the many layers of the human psyche that are so apparent within the tale.

Characterisation is a key element to the impact and the tale’s overall success.  Indeed, it’s these few remaining people who we are given a final glimpse of that forms the backbone of the entire story.  How they each react to the sheer enormity of what lies ahead of them is where the tale gets the reader in the throat.  It’s hard to see a way out.  They know that they are all on the very cusp of death, but don’t know what to do or how to react.  

However bleak the plot is, the novel still delivers shinning glimpses of love, joy and starkly contrasting happiness.  In the face of such overbearing finality to their lives, such displays of positive human emotions are breathtakingly impactful – jumping out of the page and bringing magnificent warmth for the reader.

The realism that is maintained throughout the story is one of the novel’s greatest and most potent strengths.  There’s no Hollywood fix for the apocalyptical dilemma.  There’s no hero jumping in to save the day.  What happens happens.  People, as they do in real life, grasp at straws in the hope of delaying or reversing the inevitable.  But, like with real life, things very rarely work out that way.

And so, with the final days approaching, the tale spirals to new emotional depths, until finally concluding without even a whisper of hope.  With such an emotive final chapter, it leaves the reader breathless as the last page is turned.  It must be noted that such a downbeat and prophetic novel is not for everyone. Its messages are obvious from the outset, yet not really tackled much further, apart from showing a very real and powerful human reaction towards the absolute annihilation of itself.  The sheer starkness of the novel will stay with you for years to come; its haunting coldness reminding you of the devastating stupidity that humankind is so very capable of.

Shortly after its publication the novel was adapted into the 1959 film of the same title that featured Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire.  Again in 2000 the tale was adapted, this time for the straight-to-television film starring Arman Assante and Rachel Ward.

The novel runs for a total of 312 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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