Thursday, 21 October 2010

On the Beach

In September the group read Neville Shute's sombre fifties classic On the Beach. Janet, who suggested the book, explained that she had been prompted to go back to this book after recently reading another post-apocalypse story, Cormac McCarthy's The Road. She noted there are a great many tales of Armageddon, but On the Beach is the only one where all the characters die. Despite the odd glimmer of hope (a radio signal from the blighted northern hemisphere, a failed theory that the radiation is lessening) this is just a story of the people of Australia waiting, pretty calmly, to die of the inevitable radiation poisoning from a disasterous nuclear war in the North. Quite a brave thing for the author to do, to write something so bleak (get so scarily possible). This must have summed up pretty well the fears of people during the early Cold War, and fed into the consciousness that generation.

This was a book we all found fascinating and it gave us a lot to speak about. The submarine journey to North America is a compelling storyline, especially the moment when a crew member jumps ship to die in his home city - the only living being alive in that hemisphere for the few days he will last. There is the very occasional humourous detail, like the determined gentlemen in the club determinedly drinking their way through all the best port.

The group discussed how some of the characters were pretty wooden, but that this didn't detract from the book. It's power lies in the ordered suburban society being juxtaposed with the approaching nightmare, and since this was set in the conservative 195os in conservative Melbourne among a naval community, the stilted stiff-upper-lip behaviour of many of the characters is believable. People continue to go to work, to plant crops, to plan the future - and it's not as crazy as it seems. If you only have a few days to live, you may panic and go mad, but if you have months to wait you can't keep that kind of behaviour up for long. And if you must go, why not on a nice beach with a government-issue suicide pill and a bottle of brandy? Better -surely? - than the savage struggle for survival depicted in The Road? It is both seductive and terrifying how people in On the Beach accept the inevitable. A very powerful book.