Monday, April 19, 2010

On The Beach

A couple of hours ago I finished reading Neville Shute's 1957 novel On The Beach and I wanted to post something here now, while it's still fresh in my mind. This is one of those 'modern classics' that I've been meaning to read for years, but until now have never gotten around to it.

I'm still reeling.

It's not often that a book moves me to tears. The last time it happened was about four years ago (Bloody Zusak). It's even rarer that I finish a book and just know - and I mean instantly know - that it's going to change me; the way I write, the way I think about story and narrative and character. There's probably only three or four books in my entire reading history that have managed that.

On The Beach is the latest of them.

I'm not going to review it here - that's not what this blog is for or about. But I'll say a couple of general things about it.

I think it's probably the most awful book I've ever read. But I mean that in a good way; the writing is sublime, the craftsmanship of the narrative close to perfect, but it's all the more awful as a result. It's clearly the product of another time, and another way of thinking, but the passage of time has in no way affected the impact of the characters and their situation upon the reader. It's not a book to read if you're a new parent. I suspect that in some ways that made it even tougher.

Despite the subject matter, it's a gentle book - it has a measured pace and a degree of quiet understatement to it which just makes the story all the more touching. As an example of the power of restraint and subtlety in writing , it's one of the most perfect books I've ever read.

It's going to give me nightmares tonight. I just know it. It's going to make it hard to concentrate at work tomorrow. I'm probably going to talk about it in my lectures on wednesday, whether I want to or not; I won't be able to not do so, I suspect.

In On Writing, Stephen King talks about the importance of reading for the serious writer, about the value of it for helping learn and hone your craft; "If you don't have the time to read, then you don't have the time to write."

All too rare discoveries like this one are exactly what he's talking about.

I'm so glad I read it. Even though I still feel horribly disturbed by it. THIS is what writing is all about, I think.

'night everyone. I'm off to try and get some sleep.


  1. on the beach is one of my most favourite reads (I also loved the film - but am yet to watch the mini-series). I think I will have to read it again. sigh.

  2. I totally relate to your comment about how you just know when a book is going to change you - as a person and as a writer. That happens to me at least once or twice a year and every time it does, it feels so magical. I think that's the crux of why I read so avidly. I like to be entertained yes but even more I like my world occasionally turned on its head. The last book that did that for me was Frankenstein. I didn't even like it at first - just read it to support the HSC student in the house. But I couldn't shake it... and then I read it again.

  3. Fabulous post, Tony. I felt that way recently after reading The Road, and yes, four years ago, after reading The Book Thief. I shall hunt down this one too. BTW, was this part of your Lifeline haul?



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