On the Beach by Nevil Shute isn't an easy book to read. Oh, stylistically it's fine. A simple, flowing writing style that paints word pictures and subtly evokes emotions, not bashing you over the head. Understated is probably a good word. No, the difficulty in this book comes from the subject matter. Spoiler alert: everyone dies. Well, what do you expect from a book about the repercussions of a nuclear war that covered the world in deadly fallout?
Set in Melbourne, Australia, the book deals with the lives of a handful of people who must come to terms with the inevitable end. So far south, they are among the very last in the world to suffer from the radiation sickness that has killed the rest of humanity. Three of our protagonists are naval officers working on a submarine, the last one in commission, and the sub's missions into irradiated zones lend the book some tense excitement, that quiet terror of entering a dead land. Little eerie mysteries must be resolved, hopes dangled in front of the dying world only to be yanked away, because there's no happy ending, just meeting your end with a quiet dignity. It's hard to read this when the book makes no bones about how things are going to end up. But you read on because of how skillfully the concept is handled and because of how well-drawn the characters are. Though On the Beach is apparently Shute's best-known work, I discovered him through A Town Like Alice and was charmed by his writing. It's his character work, really, that impresses. There's a pervasive sense of dignity in both of those works.