As part of my minor fascination with life after the nuclear holocaust, Nevil Shute’s On the beach from the local library. The premise is that after a nuclear war in 1962, the entire northern hemisphere is covered with a cloud of radiation that has eradicated life, and which is spreading gradually southwards. The novel is set in Melbourne, Australia, as its inhabitants gradually wait for the inevitable end, predicted to come in about six months’ time. Central to the novel are the captain of the last US submarine, which escaped destruction through being on manoeuvres in the Arctic, and a young Australian girl who is reacting to the disaster by drinking herself to death.
It’s well written if a little stiff – the dialogue, as in most Shute novels, reads like the script of a 1940s British war film, but it is well plotted and the prose is workmanlike – but it’s the set-up which is most interesting and thought-provoking; even in a post-Cold War world Shute’s suggested scenario for a nuclear war is chilling. Shute is comparable to other rather stoical, macho writers of the Cold War period, like John Le Carré, but he has none of Le Carré’s subtlety and is far less morally nuanced. An intelligent and gripping novel nonetheless.