Two Books by Nevil Shute

On the Beach by British author Nevil Shute was published in 1957, the same year I was born. It tells the story of the last survivors of a nuclear war that has left enough radioactive fallout to eventually blanket the entire globe and annihilate all humankind. Almost the last inhabitable places are near Melbourne in southern Australia. The book is set in and near Melbourne and begins with T.S. Eliot’s famous words:

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river . . .

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

On the Beach may be the saddest book I’ve ever read. I’d add it to my list of Best Tear-Jerkers, but it’s not exactly a tear-jerker. It’s just ineffably sad. The world is ending with a whimper, and Shute describes the effect of that sort of hopeless situation on a group of rather ordinary people. I have a few quibbles with the way he describes it all; I think there might be more religion, and more violence at the same time, in such a world, but maybe it would be just as Shute says. I hope I never live in such a time and place to find out. This book was fascinating, in a morbid sort of way, but it’s as close as I want to get to the edge of hopelessness.

Nevil Shute Norway was an aviation engineer who started his own aircraft company and worked on the development of secret weapons for the British during World War II. Before and after the war, he worked as a novelist and wrote a total of twenty-four novels. He’s said to be better at plots than at characterization, but I found his characters in On the Beach and A Town Like Alice, the other of his books I read, to be quite memorable. Commander Dwight Towers of the U.S. Navy is a law-abiding faithful Dobbin of a ship’s captain who nevertheless is attracted to Moira, an Australian party girl. Jean Paget, in A Town Like Alice, is a heroine of uncommon depth and character although it takes a war and the Australian outback to bring out all the resources she finds within herself.

I must say something more about A Town Like Alice, especially since it was my favorite of the two books by Nevil Shute that I read. If the the two books have a common theme it’s that of ordinary people responding to extraordinary circumstances with courage and ingenuity. Much more upbeat than On the Beach, A Town Like Alice is a novel in two parts. The first part is about Jean Paget, one of eighty women captured by the Japanese on the Malay pennisula and then marched from place to place because their captors don’t know what to do with them. (This first part of the novel is based on a true event that happened in Sumatra rather than Malaya.) The second part of the story takes place in Australia as Jean comes to see that she is more than just a survivor; she’s also a builder, able to grow and thrive in the Australian desert.

Engineer Nevil Shute Norway does know how to tell a good story. I recommend both of the books I read. Just don’t choose On the Beach for a day when you’re already depressed about life and the world in general. It’s more appropriate for the times when you’re feeling a little cocky and need a bit of a sobering reality check. A Town Like Alice is useful for inspiration and a good, decent story.

On the Beach and A Town Like Alice have both been made into movies, each one twice in fact. The 1959 version of On the Beach starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astair, and Anthony Perkins. Nevil Shute hated the movie, but it made him famous and probably scared the heck out of a whole bunch of people.

Nevil Shute Norway Foundation.
Will Duquette at View from the Foothills has reviewed several of Nevil Shute’s novels.

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Writen by Sherry

I'm a Christian, the homeschooling mom of eight (yes, all mine) children, married to a NASA engineer, and a confirmed bookaholic. I like old books, conservative politics, and new and interesting ideas. My hair is grey, my favorite clothes are red, and I love purple. Come on in and enjoy the blog. Be sure to tell me what you think before you leave.

7 thoughts on “Two Books by Nevil Shute

  1. I’ve never read On the Beach for the reasons you mentioned. But I have read lots of other books by Shute, and they were unfailingly “good reads.”

    (I read Possession by Byatt last week – did NOT like it at all. Have you read it yet? – I know it was in your queue. What did you think of it?)

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