Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On the BeachOn the Beach by Nevil Shute
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“It's not the end of the world at all," he said. "It's only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan't be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

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An Instructional Manual from 1951 on what to do in the event of an A-Bomb attack.

On the Beach was published in 1957, but the novel is set in what was then the near future of 1963. Those years between 1957-1963 proved to be tumultuous years indeed. When I checked this book out of the library, the librarian, the same one who gave me such good material for my In Cold Blood review, said that this book terrified her, not because of the horrifying circumstances in the book, but the plodding calmness of the characters.

I was intrigued.

I wanted to ask what it was like to have read this book in 1957, but that is a rather delicate question to a woman of an indeterminate age. Luckily she bailed me out and told me she read the book much later, but still while we were up to our eyeballs in the Cold War. My Father has always said he has never been more afraid of the World Ending than in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My bellwether librarian agreed that she remembered how difficult it was for everyone to go about their regular business with the oppressive presence of the eminent demise of civilization looming over their lives. (I paraphrase.)

I still can’t quite peg her age. I could dig around a bit and probably discover her birth date, but then that wouldn’t be very sporting of me now would it?

So it is the end of the world.

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John Riordan comic strip.

”In the last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river…

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.

S. Eliot

 photo atomicbomb_zps879109b3.jpg, Nevil Shute has the world ending with Albania attacking Italy. Egypt then bombed the United States and the United Kingdom. NATO bombed the Soviet Union because the planes used by the Egyptians were Soviet made. The Soviets bomb China because of Chinese attacks on their border. All of this nuclear infused with cobalt to insure the maximum amount of radiation fallout. So those countries that were not involved in World War III, are fully involved in the dying part of the war.

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I glanced through some other reviews of this book. The people who didn’t like this book were looking for the standard apocalyptic novel with desperate people fleeing in front of the radiation (zombies, tidal wave, Ebola etc) hoping to live days longer or maybe even hoping for a reprieve. They wanted people clinging to every last drop of their remaining existence. I would guess that the book would have been more fulfilling for them if a pocket of those people had found a way to survive thus leaving them with some hope that they too could be among the survivors.

This isn’t that kind of book. I’m sure there were people fleeing South, but Shute focuses on the people who stay in Melbourne. The people who are measuring their lifespan in days and minutes as word arrives of radiation sickness three hundred miles away, one hundred miles away.

Dwight Towers, commander of probably the last remaining operational American submarine, has attached his vessel to the Australian Navy. He has a wife and kids in the United States. He is a practical man who knows logically they are dead, but he continues to think about them and talk about them as if they are alive. He meets Moira Davidson who drinks brandy around the clock, loses her top while swimming (see how fun she is!), and is coming to terms with the fact that she is never going to get married or do any of the things she hasn’t even thought of yet.

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1959 movie poster

John Osborne is a scientist who has been attached as a liaison officer to the USS Scorpion. Shute was an aeronautical engineer by trade. His love for machines comes out in the Osborne character. John finds a Ferrari and buys it for pennies on the dollars, even for that price it seems like an act of pure lunacy, but he has always wanted to race cars and has a stash of fuel that will make that dream come true. He organizes the final Australian Grand Prix and so many drivers come out of the woodwork that they have to organize heats to determine the drivers for the final race.

Peter Holmes is a lieutenant commander in the Australian Navy, receiving promotions so quickly due to resignations that he will soon be an admiral. He has a wife, Mary, and a daughter. He cuts down trees and expands the flower and vegetable garden. It gives Mary something to do, something to think about other than winds of death. Moria is discussing the strangeness of planting a garden with Dwight.

“Someone’s crazy,” she said quietly. “Is it me or them?”
“Why do you say that?”
“They won’t be here in six months’ time. I won’t be here. You won’t be here. They wont’ want any vegetables next year.”

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There are old men at the Gentlemen’s Club slowly depleting the last 100 bottles of port. There are debates about whether it is ethical to move the fishing season up. There are people still going to school trying to finish course work. The people who stay are trying to be as productive with their lives as if a normal life span was still stretching out before them. ”Typically for a Shute novel, the characters avoid expressing intense emotions and do not mope or indulge in self-pity. Some reviewers thought the characters were wooden. I found the calmness of the people populating this novel more terrifying than if they had been fleeing for their lives. There was a part of me that wanted to go shake some sense into them and extort them to help me come up with a plan, but as I started to accept the circumstances I realized that the only sane course was the course they were already on.

Do you want to die in a tent surrounded by people you don’t know, going hungry more than likely; and yet, as doomed as if you’d stayed in your home surrounded by your friends and family? Do you want to take the chance that you will survive the apocalypse? I say put on a pot of tea, keep the bourbon close to hand, and finally finish War and Peace. Maybe there is even time for a quick nap in the hammock with the sun on my toes and bees buzzing by my ear.

A fascinating, historical look back to when the threat of nuclear war hung like a shadow around the sun.

***4.25 out of 5 stars***

View all my reviews

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