I first read this book many years ago when I was in my late teens, and although I could remember the main theme I had forgotten many of the details. This second reading added many different perspectives, which was inevitable given the fact that years had become decades.
At the very beginning of the book it is apparent that all life has been eradicated from the northern hemisphere after the unfortunate firing of several nuclear bombs by the “Irresponsibles”, and that the nuclear cloud is rapidly approaching Australia, the last island of life on the planet. But it is the 1950s and, despite being swept towards such a horrifying reality, people are more friendly and courteous, and things seem simpler.
Yet, underlying all the polite, and at times seemingly unnecessary, conventions, people are actually in a state of disintegration: Moira is losing herself in alcohol; Dwight (an American) clings to the impossible belief that his family is still alive and well in America; Mary devotes her time to her garden and other home improvements. Peter is one of the few characters who is able to admit to himself the inevitability of what is about to happen, and yet he finds himself in a situation where he is forever balancing other people’s fantasies with the unavoidable reality.
Photo of Nevil Shute from Wikipedia
Readers living in the twenty-first century might wonder at the perceived apathy of the Australian people as they wait for the cloud to envelop them; however, there are substantial differences between the 1950s and the twenty-first century. The transport possibilities that had been fairly basic at best were made null and void with the scarcity of petrol – bikes and horses were not going to move many people very far, nor would it happen quickly. Also, the idea of cycling in front of a cloud that would sooner or later overtake every human on the planet would not have been very encouraging. People from that period were not tied to information media as we are today, but were this to happen today we would most probably find ourselves in a similar position: no radio, no newspapers, no television and no internet. Once our twenty-first-century dependence on external media was forcibly removed we would probably feel that we were in a worse position than the people from the 1950s.
The writing is typical Nevil Shute: it does not create a literary masterpiece, but it gives us a few hours of relatively fast-paced entertainment. That said, On the Beach is not just mindless entertainment as it paints a reality that was extremely possible in the latter part of the 1950s and, unfortunately, is just as possible today, sixty years further on.