On the Beach had long been on my TBR list. Choosing it now in the midst of a global pandemic added a strange layer to my reading.
The story takes place in Australia, a few months after a brief global war has destroyed the planet. Atomic and cobalt bombs set off around the world have led to the deaths of millions by radiation poisoning. North America, Europe, and Asia are wiped out and the radiation is steadily creeping toward the Southern Hemisphere. In Australia, the population knows that they have approximately six months to live and so the novel is a fascinating study into human nature and what it might be like to live at the end of the world. The world has ended with a bang but these characters are there to witness the last whimpers.
We have Peter and Mary, a young couple with a baby daughter, attempting to live their lives as normally as possible. They go so far as planning out their garden for the next spring, a season they will never live to see. It’s their way of coping with a death that is out of their control.
Mary looked at her gratefully. “Well, that’s what I think. I mean, I couldn’t bear to – to just stop doing things and do noting. You might as well die now and get it over.”
Moira nodded. “If what they say is right, we’re none of us going to have time to do all that we planned to do. But we can keep on doing it as long as we can.”
It’s heartbreaking and a little inspiring to see them planning for their future until the very last moment.
Moira is a friend of theirs who takes a more nihilistic approach to the end of the world. She drinks heavily and indulges herself in whatever way she chooses at the moment, believing her choices no longer matter. Peter is a naval officer, assigned as a liaison officer to an American submarine that has ended up stuck in Melbourne. Peter invites the American captain, Dwight, home for a weekend and invites Moira along to entertain him, worried that Dwight will be saddened at the sight of ordinary home life. Dwight and Moira strike up an unexpected friendship that begins to change the way Moira lives out her last few months.
Dwight is an interesting character. An American from the East Coast, he has a wife and two children that are, undoubtedly, dead from radiation. In order to function however, he continues to think of them as alive and waiting for his return in September. (This is the estimated date of the radiation poisoning reaching Melbourne.) He even goes so far as carefully choosing out presents to bring home to them. He is a by-the-book leader, following the rules strictly until the very end because he believes in the structures of society and he wants to be reunited with his family knowing he did everything right.
While the crew of the submarine, including Peter and Dwight, do make some exploratory missions into the radioactive zones, including one where they venture as far as Seattle to investigate a radio signal, this is not where the real action of the novel exists. If you read On the Beach expecting an exciting, apocalyptic story, you’ll likely be disappointed. This is a novel about people and about the ways they might react, knowing the world ends. Despite the characters being Australian and American it had a very stiff-upper-lip British feel to me. There is drunkenness in the street and people stop going to work but for the most part society continues to function normally. There doesn’t seem to be a significant increase in looting or violence. Looking at the world as it is around me today, I wonder if this is a realistic portrayal or idealism on Shute’s part.
That said, as we are currently living through a time like no other, I found a lot in the novel to recognize. People do keep living their lives in the midst of turmoil. We do plan for the future, even when that future is uncertain. We are capable of great good in the midst of pain. I don’t know if Shute’s version is accurate but it’s one I would want to aspire to.
She said furiously, “Don’t you know?”
“No, I don’t,” he replied. Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of the world before.”