Emotionally Shredding ****
On the Beach tells the story of the aftermath of an all-out nuclear war.
The setting is Australia, one of the few places in the world to escape not
only the bombs, put the deadly clouds of radioactive fallout from the war.
But they'll only survive for a little while, because the global wind
currents are slowly pushing the deadly fallout down to Antarctica. The
Aussies only have a short time before they all come down with radiation
sickness and die. The whole book is an emotional rollercoaster as the
dreaded day of death looms ever closer, with absolutely nothing to prevent
doom. Most people are resigned to their fate, and try and stay busy with
various daily rituals in an effort to keep their sanity.
The two main characters of the book are Dwight Towers, a U.S. submarine
commander who has survived the war and is in refuge in Australia, and
Moira Davidson, a young Australian girl who is bitter about her fate and
seeks consolation with Dwight. Other characters are introduced, such as a
young couple with a baby and a scientist who likes racing cars. The reader
is quickly drawn into these people's lives, and really comes to care about
what happens to them. Needless to say, the ending isn't warm and cheery. I
had to stop reading the book several times and take a little break to get
rid of the huge lump in my throat. It is a VERY tough read at the end. If
you don't get emotional, you just might be dead.
There are several small points to make about the book. The author, Nevil
Shute, isn't exactly the best writer in terms of grammar. There are
awkward sentences and errors, and it sometimes detracts from the story. He
also wrote this book in the late 1950's, and he's English, so there are
words that don't make much sense today. Despite these flaws, the story is
still gut wrenching and compelling. I really appreciated Shute's sense of
irony. Moira first meets Dwight because she is enlisted to keep his mind
off of his dead family in America. However, Moira ends up being the one
who starts to break down. More irony appears when people make plans that
they know they won't be alive to keep. The scene when Peter and Mary are
planning their garden is is a good example of this irony, and you'll groan
in anguish over it. Overall, I haven't been this upset over something
since I watched the film "Cutting Moments".
I'm surprised more people haven't heard of this book. I gave it to my Mom
to read first, and she bawled like a baby at the end. You may not bawl,
but you'll certainly be affected.
The Last Horizon ***
One approaches a classic carefully. Rather than a novel
experience, the reader brings preconceptions, prejudices, awe and maybe a whiff
of resentment to a well-known book that is not entirely new to him.
Mr. Shute delivers a slow-starting novel, liturgically paced with an inexorable
conclusion that is with us from page one. This is the power of "On the Beach."
It has the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. The characters and the reader
self-deceive, twist, hope, pray and promise-all to no avail.
I would not call "On the Beach" timeless. The behaviors seem quaint and dated
fifty years after the writing of the book. I doubt the characters had much
believability even in 1957. Moira Davidson goes from dissolute debauchery to
saintly status without even a pause for proper redemption. I can see the lovely
Ava Gardner as the Jezebel, but it is quite a stretch to imagine her as St.
Bernadette. Mr. Shute casts an American as a central character, but
unfortunately he has not much an ear for American speech. For some reason, he
believes American men, when addressing marriageable aged women leap from "Miss
Davidson" to "honey" and then never call her anything else. (I don't know, maybe
"Moira" is hard to pronounce.) Also, I fear Mr. Shute had little affinity for
our youngest humans. The Holmes' baby girl Jennifer, was always referred to as
"it" by Mr. Shute. These were small irritations, but jarring.
Nevertheless, the power of the book is undeniable. There is a certain rightness
that the events are larger than the humans involved. The humans respond with an
orderliness that is astonishing, but perhaps Mr. Shute was trying to be kind in
a very unkind world. Grade: 3-1/2 stars.