Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Cautionary, Contemplative Portrait of Mankind Faced With Its Own Mortality


On the Beach by Nevil Shute (1957; Vintage, 2010, 320pp.)

What would you do if you only had six months to live? Unfortunately, this is a choice that some people face on an everyday basis, due to cancer or some other illness. In the case of Shute’s novel, the characters find themselves faced with a rather messy, prolonged death by radiation sickness. One of the several post-apocalyptic classics to emerge form the Cold War Era, this is a very humane, compassionate look at a group of people living out their final days in a major Australian city after a series of nuclear wars wipe out all life in the Northern hemisphere.

The characters’ reactions to their impending doom make it a very British book, reminiscent of the old World War II slogan, “Keep calm and carry on.” While every now and then someone reacts with intense despair, most of the citizens of this Australian town come to accept their fate and instead see it as a blessing that they are able to die together with their families. One character even reasons that it’s better to take your own life while in your prime - albeit in unfortunate circumstances - rather than to linger into old age in a nursing home.

There are some moments of mild, if sometimes shocking humor. An instance of this humor is Shute’s narration of Australia’s last Grand Prix race, writing of how people come out to the races to compete in their Bentleys, Ferraris, Jaguars, Maseratis, and Thunderbirds (including a car I’ve never heard of, called a “Gipsy Lotus”), only for half of the contestants to die mangled in wrecks. “He got it the way he wanted it to be,” the wife of one crash victim serenely comments. “None of this being sick and all the rest of it” (217).

The ultimate conclusion of the novel is that if humanity is capable of such atrocity, then perhaps the race isn’t worthy of the planet it so eagerly destroys. A cautionary, contemplative portrait of mankind faced with its own mortality. Highly recommended.

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