The end

Some books you rather wish you hadn't read. There seem to be two distinct categories  - there are the ones that are just irredeemably awful, usually you won't get to the end of these, as you'll have given up long before you get to the end (see my review of the truly dreadful Past Imperfect). This category also includes the ones that you think are going to improve, but don't. The ones that leave you wondering why you wasted a couple of hours of your life on them. I know some readers aren't so fortunate, or perhaps I have much lower standards, but I haven't met too many awful ones, at least not since childhood, perhaps I'm just lucky in the reading choices that I make.

Even rarer though than these are the books that are so incredibly bleak that you're left wallowing in a slough of despond at the end of them. These are always (in my experience) well written, but leave your soul wellowing in a pit of depression. These really are rare - I can think of a couple of plays : Samuel Beckett's Endgame, for example, that I read for A-level Theatre Studies. This was so bleak that we all ended up laughing as there was really nothing else you could do. I suspect that 1984 may be among this category, but I've never made it to the end of that, with my previously confessed rat-issues. Then there's A canticle for Leibowitz, incredibly bleak, yes, but there is at least some hope of redemption at the end; even if humanity has to go all the way through its depressing cycle of restructuring and destruction once again. But for apocalyptic reads they don't get any bleaker, sadder, or, I would suspect, realistic than Nevil Shute's awesome On the beach. 

Nevil Shute was a popular writer of the 1940s and '50s. Born in England, he spent the latter part of his life in Australia, and many of his novels are at least partly based there. Most of his novels deal with honest decent people, placed in extraordinary situations. The previously reviewed A Town like Alice is a great example of this; in which Shute follows a group of ordinary British women on a forced march through Malaya in the Second World War. Shute is very much of his era, certainly in his manners and moral codes. And although in his depiction of extreme circumstances he may not be as blunt as contemporary writers, the horrors that sometimes lie at the heart of his novels are none the less horrific for being told in an understated-tone. If anything this very British stiff-upper-lip school of writing marks horrific events more clearly. His very calmness marks out the horror.

Shute's popularity may well have worked against him. Labelled a popular writer, like many other popular writers of his day, he has become unfashionable, and many younger people will probably have never heard of him. And this is a shame, because Shute wasn't just a pulp-fiction writer; at his best he was as good as any. And perhaps nowhere is this so obvious as in On the beach.

On the beach is a horribly difficult read. It's difficult because Shute writes so well about a subject that no-one likes to think about. Written in 1957 at the height of the Cold War, On the beach is a devastating tale. A single bomb exploded by a rogue nation leads to a series of tit-for-tat "limited" strikes which ends up wiping out and irradiating the whole of the northern hemisphere. Now the people of Australia and New Zealand wait for the radiation cloud to descend on them, and for their world to end.

As they await their doom an unlikely romance springs up between an Australian "good-time-girl" and the commander of a United States submarine, whose family has been killed in the atomic holocaust. Both find consolation and hope for the future in each other, despite knowing that ultimately they are doomed. It's a grim tale perhaps best summed up in one of the shortest precis ever: "There's a nuclear war. Everybody dies." As an advert for the danger of nuclear armaments they don't get much better than On the beach. It is a horrifyingly bleak tale, and perhaps post-Cold War we still need to be reminded of how much there may be to lose in any nuclear war.

I don't think On the beach ever won any awards; and it should have. It's a quite remarkable book. For more on Nevil Shute and his legacy see Nevil Shute Foundation.


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