Jan-Maat's Reviews > On the Beach

On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
5617661
's review

bookshelves: 20th-century, fiction, australia

This is a tricky book to review without spoilers, there is basically only one incident that drives the entire book, and that happens off the page before the book begins, and that event means that a certain thing is going to happen, to everybody, the problem is that this certain thing will happen to everyone anyway (sorry if that comes as a spoiler to you, but it does) so from a literary point of view the author either has to find some new or particular meaning or convince us that this is particularly poignant for the book to be successful, by the very nature of the story there can't be thrills, spills or miraculous escapes - well, there could have been a couple of possible escape routes but Shute chose not to explore those and he only acknowledges one in any case.

Judging by other reviews some people found that it worked for them, indeed on the back of the copy I read a reviewer from The Evening News wrote "If you can can read it without being brought to the edge of tears you are harder and more callous than I am", so I learnt from this book that I am harder and more callous than one John Connell. Well I didn't know that before reading, so I could be grateful for this revelation. Now I can imagine Mr Connell looking up from his typewriter to a framed photograph of the young Queen Liz II, left hand barely able to hold his tumbler of whisky steady, as he mumbles something about how magnificently stiff lipped they all were. However I found myself in the same position as when I read Mary Shelley's The Last Man one watches a certain process unfolding, and basically it is not very interesting, theoretically it is dramatic, but it is hard to convey that for the length of even a 250ish page yarn (view spoiler). Hmm.

After this book was published a Swiss woman came up with the five stages of Grief. In this book however however there is no such thing, instead there are only three states: denial, acceptance and once or twice and only from the women - petulance. So a certain thing is going to happen - none of the characters is going through any process or development in regard to this thing, they remain in the same mental state throughout so there is minimal psychological interest for the reader. Sorry if I'm over selling this to you and you are already hammering on the library door.

Well to fill the time between the first page and the last one, Shute gives us some characters: an Australian naval officer, and his wife (the wife is a bit, well actually pretty, which is to say simply stupid, but that more or less suffices for a character) her husband though is a good sort, mechanically minded so a good sort, he gets appointed liaison officer to a US American submarine, there doesn't seem to be any purpose for this appointment but ne'er mind, in for a penny, in for pound, the author was a bit at a loss too, he describes him as having a really busy day of liaison work and then lists everything he does: he phones an old friend, pretty exhausting this liaison work, hey? The couple also have a baby, I think the baby is called Jennifer butshe is resolutely described as 'it' which builds in a certain distance between the reader and any potential pathos. Next character: the US commander of the submarine, he's called Dwight and is in denial, and says things like 'sure' and mentions 'uncle Sam' regularly so we know he's 100 percent USA. He doesn't have a relationship with Moira, when we first meet her she wears red lipstick, a red blouse, red shoes and some kind of garment covering her lower body which is also red. Aha, says I, I knows about this symbolism lark, avast! This be a Scarlet woman, shiver me timbers! Next time she's dressed all in white (so virginal then), after that in Khaki (camouflage maybe), I don't know, these modern writers, always trying to confound and confuse the reader, it's enough to give you a headache. At first she boozes, then she becomes a good girl and attends secretarial school, God knows why, then she hits the brandy again - curious actually that the country doesn't run out of brandy, she won't sleep over because what would her parents say? As a reader you think that given a certain thing will happen why would anyone care - ok some of you point out there's a certain thing called religion, but then the author flags up that the government have made preparations so that everybody can participate and smooth out the potentially irregular process of the certain event by swallowing a certain pill and as far as I recall religious thought is generally not keen on people taking such an action even in the face of the inevitable and inescapable(view spoiler). Finally there's a boffin, Moira knows him, maybe he's called John, maybe he's a kind of cousin of her's, he is seconded to the submarine as scientific attaché, Moira warns against this, darkly suggesting that he is unsuitable. At this the reader's heart leaps, maybe he is homosexual, or maybe he likes to stitch together body parts and reanimate them with electricity, in the end it turns out that he definitely owns a race car and likes to drive it very fast, which I had assumed was the point, but you know - women ay?

So we've got a process, some characters and an atomic submarine so naturally we've got to have a refit, or two, because that's the kind of novel this is, actually that is Shute's comfort zone, there's a nice scene when the boffin fiddles about with his car or plans to cannibalise some parts to repair it, essentially this is were Shute is good and when his characters are at ease (view spoiler), but once we've had a refit, and a sea trial, then we get to have a quest (view spoiler) because of a mcguffin reason.

Some other things happen, there's a grand prix with car crashes and burst tires, which might be kind of exciting but for the fact that a certain thing is going to happen so it doesn't much matter if you crash and burn or not in a larger perspective. There's a concerted effort to drink all the Port. And there's a visit to an Art gallery and a discussion about Art - I like that kind of thing in a book as in my way I assume the author is not so subtly conveying their aesthetic to the reader. In this case we are told that the 'phoney' is bad, where phoney is understood to mean too dramatic or unrealistic, realism is the desired effect and a certain subtly - for which I'd give the book a B plus, or possibly a C minus as I think they have too much electricity, and too much food, and I'm a bit bothered that so many people keep on working and don't attempt to go to certain places (view spoiler)(view spoiler) . Anyway the kind of Art that is good we are told, is Renoir, apparently there is sufficient Renoir in Melbourne (p.147). Good art then should be "very French and very colourful" (p.147), well that Moira character wears red and white and Khaki - there's our colour, as for French, well there are some bottles of Bourdeux, so we have a book that is French and colourful and therefore like Renoir and thus counts as good Art. Now we are know were we stand. And if I'm underwhelmed it is because I'm callous and incapable of appreciating Art with a capital a.

Interested that smoking is allowed onboard the submarine, I suppose it is a bit late to worry in the context of the story, but struck me as curious.

An alternative review would simply be this but that has too many spoilers really and I couldn't do that to you.
I think this kind of non-story is really difficult though to accomplish, but this time the cover is more exciting than the contents, I mean there's a man and a woman and a submarine surfacing - I note some other covers are less exciting, some even have the only spoiler illustrated which seems a trifle unfair. It reads like the novelisation of a not great film, one can imagine with very good actors if they really tried that it might work if you were really in the mood. However this is undoubtedly a must read if you love novels set in Australia that mention trams and have a tram driver saying something, otherwise...

(view spoiler)
29 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read On the Beach.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

March 13, 2018 – Started Reading
March 13, 2018 – Shelved
March 14, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

Lars Jerlach Great review Jan-Maat


message 2: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Thanks Lars


message 3: by Ilse (new)

Ilse Surprised to see you review comics too. This makes reality almost look simple. I have to admit I was hoping for more sand and even a sunset. but the colourful fashion show was a nice compensation, thank you.


message 4: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Ilse wrote: "Surprised to see you review comics too. This makes reality almost look simple. I have to admit I was hoping for more sand and even a sunset. but the colourful fashion show was a nice compensation, ..."

by the time some characters were ready to admire the sunset they were otherwise engaged and so missed it


message 5: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala When I see the length of some reviews here on gr, I often think I'd be better off spending the time reading the book instead. In this case, I'm certain I was much better off choosing to read the review, long as it was - though the blurb about being brought to the edge of tears might have ensured I'd never have read the book in the first place..


message 6: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Fionnuala wrote: "When I see the length of some reviews here on gr, I often think I'd be better off spending the time reading the book instead. In this case, I'm certain I was much better off choosing to read the re..."

in fairness I had more fun writing the review and attempting not to mention what it was all about than in reading it,


Agnieszka Very fine review,J-M. I must have read that Shute years ago but to tell the truth I can't tell now if I remember the novel or the movie on it.


message 8: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Jan-Maat wrote: "...in fairness I had more fun writing the review and attempting not to mention what it was all about than in reading it.."

Exactly the experience I had with another supposedly 'moving' book: We Are All Completely Inside Ourselves


message 9: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Agnieszka wrote: "Very fine review,J-M. I must have read that Shute years ago but to tell the truth I can't tell now if I remember the novel or the movie on it."

A bad sign when the brain refuses to recall it!


message 10: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Fionnuala wrote: "Jan-Maat wrote: "...in fairness I had more fun writing the review and attempting not to mention what it was all about than in reading it.."

Exactly the experience I had with another supposedly 'mo..."


well that to is an entertainment I guess


message 11: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa I used to feel terriffied and fascinated at the same time, reading this in highschool. We are not really safe from that "spoiler" to happen to all of us, are we?


message 12: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Lisa wrote: "I used to feel terriffied and fascinated at the same time, reading this in highschool. We are not really safe from that "spoiler" to happen to all of us, are we?"

No. But equally we are not safe in anycase, our houses are full of danger - water, electricity, gas, our own bodies can bring us down and that's all before we start to consider other people.


message 13: by Hanneke (last edited Mar 16, 2018 08:11AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Hanneke Nice to read your review, Jan-Maat. This was a seriously silly book, I thought. How about the bad girl stopping drinking and contemplating taking a course in typing and stenographing with three months of living to go! Glenn made a remark under my review that there is a b/w movie with the final scene showing the submarine going under while 'Waltzing Mathida' is playing. Yes, suitable ending, don't you think?


message 14: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Hanneke wrote: "Nice to read your review, Jan-Maat. This was a seriously silly book, I thought. How about the bad girl stopping drinking and contemplating taking a course in typing and stenographing with three mon..."

Thank you, yes I don't think many author's had the skill to write a book like this and for it to be good, the 'bad girl' a case in point, I guess the idea was that she and others were trying to keep themselves busy before the inevitable end, but it just felt less convincing than the drinking!
Yes I watched the clip, suitable in a mawkish sentimental kind of way, yes ;)


back to top