There are so many things wrong with this book. Compile all the rants I've made about other books I didn't care for over the last couple years and you'll have a list of the things that are wrong with Nevil Shute's On the Beach. I looked forward to reading this book, but it's really not that good. Yet, I enjoyed it. I almost loved it. On the Beach is like that breed of old sci-fi that has few redeeming qualities, but is worth every minute of it.
So why is this book bad?
It's unrealistic. It's the end of the world. Not the kind of end of the world where you think the end is coming but it's averted at the last minute. Or the kind where a small tribe of people survive and must repopulate. We're talking about all life on earth obliterated. Most of the earth's population is already gone at the novel's start. South Africa as well as parts of South America and Australia are holding on, waiting for the radioactive winds to reach their lands. The novel focuses primarily on Melbourne, Australia. The date is set. And everyone is just a little too okay with their fate. Sure, I buy there is some denial. And I can understand that perhaps the author is trying to make a point about the way we live our lives. All in all, it's just not believable. Give me some rioting. Some insanity. Something besides tea and crumpets and brandy and walks in the park.
The language is repetitive and bland. "Honey," the American said presently to the girl... I don't know that I've ever heard the word "Presently" in a novel. It's not a word that really does much. Shute must've disagreed as he used it every chance he could. I would estimate it pops up on nearly every page. Further, the main characters are rarely referred to by their names. Dwight is "The American". Moira is "The Girl." And since, to me, Mary is more of "a girl" than Moira, this is confusing. Don't expect much variety in the language. Or anything that will blow your mind. Lyrically, this novel is a snoozer.
The characters are as flat as the language No one does anything surprising or even interesting. They're all a bunch of cardboard cutouts playing their respective parts. Dwight Towers is the dedicated Navy submarine commander. Peter Holmes is the devoted officer and husband. Mary Holmes is the flabergasted docile wife. Moira Davidson is the wild girl looking for a second chance. John Osborne is the average civilian scientist with a hobby. That's about all you need to know or will learn about these characters. Their interactions with one another play out the way you expect, like a 1940s drama. And of course the women fall all over the men and don't know what to do without them. I guess that's expected for the time period, but it quickly grows annoying.
These are all big issues for me. The sort of problems that would normally drop a book to two stars with little hesitation. Still, I really enjoyed On the Beach.
For starters, the story is wonderful. The idea of it, at least. I love that the end is coming and people are powerless to stop it. Even the Americans are powerless for once.
Though the characters don't react how I think they necessarily should, there is still quite a bit of heartrenching moments and haunting imagery. Shute may have not gotten out much to see how people act, but he certainly knew human emotion.
Lastly, there is just a certain feel to On the Beach. I realize this is entirely ethereal reasoning and subject to personal tastes, but it has that presence that makes films like A Boy and His Dog, The Blob, or Them! classics forever. At times it's painful--like the neverending car race or the continual mentioning of pogo sticks--but there's just something about the book's atmosphere that makes these things bearable and the end product enjoyable.
From a literary point of view, the book has major flaws, but it's really quite good in the end. Sure that statement is filled with faulty logic. It's like planting a garden you'll never see. Or buying a pogo stick for a deceased child. Or learning a new job skill weeks before radiation from a thousand nuclear bombs invades your lungs and your blood and leaves you flopping around on the beach like a fish out of water. It's completely illogical, but at the same time it kind of makes sense.