Wednesday 5 January 2011

On The Beach by Nevil Shute

Had never heard of Nevil Shute.  None of his books were ever on any of my must read reading lists.  I consider this a travesty and aim to single handedly correct this miscarriage of justice.

Back in November I attended the bookswap at the Windsor Firestation Arts Centre.  "What is a bookswap?" I hear y'all ask.  A bookswap is an event where 2 authors are invited to sit on a sofa and be "interviewed" by 2 literary aficionados (Scott Pack of The Friday Project and Marie Phillips, author of Gods Behaving Badly -more about that later).  The interview is not your typical book signing interview.  The audience submits random questions before the event begins and they are picked at random.  the questions have little if anything to do with the writing or the book and more to do with the human beings in front of us.  My favourite question remains, "What's your favourite cheese?"  The authors, as well as every audience member, brings a book they want to "swap".  You are asked to give a sales pitch, an elevator speech, about your book and then other audience members are asked if they have a book they would like to swap to yours.  If you don't feel your sales skills are up to scratch, Marie or Scott will skillfully step up and sell it for you.  Admission to this unique event is either £5 or cakes.  That's right....if you bake cakes to be shared amongst the audience, you don't have to pay to get in.

At the October event I managed a trade with Warren FitzGerald, author of The Go-Away Bird.  I brought the book Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud by Sun Shuyun with me.  A book group of mine had read that years ago and whilst I found the non-fiction account of this woman's quest to find the China of her childhood fascinating in bits, it wasn't a book I was going to read again.  And I wasn't going to recommend it to someone else.  The bits I found fascinating were all highlighted in my indomitable style and it was a hardback so I felt confident that my swap would be an easy pitch.

But I had competition.  When Mr FitzGerald pitched this book by someone named Shute I was dubious about the plot but felt the description of the writing style would be worthwhile.  And the swap was agreed.   At home I added the book to my To Read pile and thought I might never get to it given the teetering size of that pile which isn't even one pile but more like 7 piles.

But the book called to me from its place and I kept picking it back up.  Finally, I dove in and finished the book the night before North Korea started acting up as a bully to its neighbours.  And I'm certain this book has changed me forever.

Nevil Shute was a British aeronautical engineer whose work on aircraft technology helped to win WWII.  He emigrated to Australia in 1950 when he became disenchanted with Britain and many of his later novels are set in Australia.

In On The Beach, the world is ending, actually the world has ended, it is just a matter of time.  World powers have detonated nuclear weapons and everything in the northern hemisphere has been destroyed.  There is considerable vagueness about who did what to whom and why and where the weapons came from.  I think in the event of an escalating crisis, there would undoubtedly be considerable confusion about who and what and where and why.  Just read Wikileaks.

Set in Melbourne, Australia, air currents are bringing the radiation to the southern hemisphere and the last humans on earth are dealing with their inevitable fate.  An American submarine commander whose vessel was underwater at the time of the explosion has found himself hastily promoted as everyone in his chain of command dies, explores the planet looking for signs of life, a fruitless and dispiriting endeavour.

Every character deals with the inevitable in different ways.  The alcoholic, wild living Moira, cleans up her act and imagines her life lived in sober happiness with the US commander.  The Holmes family ignores the entire future continuing to renovate their house, plant trees and a vegetable garden that will never ripen.  The US commander denies his family in America are dead and buys them gifts to take back when he returns from his tour of duty.

Unlike any other book I have ever read about the end of the world, there is no small group of survivors to carry on the legacy of mankind.  No one survives.  No one.  In the end cyanide pills and injections are dispensed for people to use to avoid the ugly and painful death of radiation poisoning.  And so the decision must be made. 

How does one decide to inject their infant daughter before taking the pill themselves?  How does one spend the last few days of the end of the world?  I have nightmares still despite reading the book months ago.  After watching the film with Armand Assante (which is in no way near as good - not even in the same universe) with my husband, he is having nightmares - hey, at least he watched it since I can't ever get him to read a book!

When North Korea started playing games the very morning upon my finishing the book and governments all over the world were screaming for restraint, I felt like I personally wanted to deliver  copies of this book to all the leaders with the codes and keys to the nuclear detonators. 

I have now reserved other books by Shute at the library and must pop in to pick them up today.  I hope Mr FitzGerald enjoyed his Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud as much as I enjoyed On The Beach but somehow I think I got the better end of that trade.  I strongly urge you to give it a go.  You will never be the same.

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