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Nevil Shute - not a big fan of women? Or people in general?

(37 Posts)
cornflakegirl Fri 15-May-15 15:13:08

I've just finished reading On The Beach, and I found it really odd.

<spoiler alert> I know the world was a different place in the 50s, but did Mary have to be quite so stupid? Why did neither of them cuddle Jennifer at the end? What was with all the working class people (shop assistants, tram drivers, club stewards) stoically carrying on working until they were physically too ill to do so? Why was Peter so keen to preserve naval discipline that he would pointlessly scuttle a submarine and refuse to take civilians on board to do so, meaning that his crew couldn't spend their last minutes with the people they love? Did Shute have any humanity at all? Or any imagination?

FadedRed Fri 15-May-15 15:33:35

I didn't think On The Beach was one of Shute's better books, disappointingly as the premise for the novel had the expectation of being an exploration into the hearts and minds (apols for cliché) of people being in an extraordinary situation, about as extraordinary as it gets.
Have you tried A Town Like Alice ?- there is more to the story than in the film and, although it is a novel of it's time and therefore there are parts that today would verge on casual racism, there is, I feel, a greater insight into the thoughts and feelings of the main characters. The female 'lead Jean' is , or at least becomes through the circumstances, a very strong character.

ZeroFunDame Fri 15-May-15 15:36:21

Oh dear - I can't help with On The Beach - it's too long ago since I read it.

But I've read The Pied Piper within the last couple of years and found it full of compassion and understanding. It also said some things about the effects of being caught up in war as a civilian that I haven't seen anywhere else. Definitely "of its time" but I can recommend it.

charleybarley Fri 15-May-15 15:41:30

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

namechange0dq8 Fri 15-May-15 15:49:35

Did Shute have any humanity at all?

On The Beach has not aged well, to put it mildly.

I think the accusation of inhumanity against Shute would be countered by (re) reading The Trustee From The Toolroom. The whole thing is suffused with a patronising air of "the working classes, they may not use the right cutlery, but aren't they so honest and direct and good with their hands? I would swap with them immediately were it not for their terrible clothes, houses and, my dear, the food!" which will set your teeth on edge. But if you put that to one side as a product of when it's written, Shute's respect for his characters shines through, and you'd have to have a hard heart not to be caught up in it by the end.

DuchessofMalfi Fri 15-May-15 18:14:49

I've only read On The Beach and A Town Like Alice, so can only form an opinion based on those two novels.

I loved ATLA (read as a teenager). He created a very strong-minded, independent female character in that. She was a survivor of the Japanese soldiers' brutal march across Malaysia (I think it was - must re-read it), saw her lover crucified by them and die (as she believed). I don't think NS wasn't a fan of the strong women in that novel. It felt to me that he was rather in awe of them.

cornflakegirl Fri 15-May-15 20:02:54

It's good to hear that people who hated On the Beach liked other books - I shall give ATLA a try!

NadiaWadia Sat 16-May-15 17:47:02

Snap cornflakegirl I thought exactly the same after reading 'On the Beach'! It's very weird isn't it? As if everyone would just calmly carry on until they were physically unable. The strange attitude to women as well! It's been a few years since I read it but one character had a female secretary who carried on working til nearly the end, then left her boss a note explaining that she had gone home to take the suicide pill and 'thanking him for being so kind to her'. Yes, all the women were very docile, grateful (and stupid!)

I also remember the scene with the couple and the baby, getting ready to take the suicide pills. The father asks her if she wants to hold the baby (as she dies) and she says something like 'No, I'd prefer to remember her as she was'. Unbelievable!

I also think Neville Shute must have been a very strange man, lacking in emotional intelligence. It's like it has been written by an alien.

NadiaWadia Sat 16-May-15 17:54:03

Not read any of his others, so I can't comment on them, but to be honest On the Beach (which I read after seeing the old film, with Antony Perkins late one night on TV) was enough to put me off him completely, so I don't think I will be trying any others.

MiddleAgeMiddleEngland Sat 16-May-15 20:41:34

As Zero said, Pied Piper is full of compassion. It's one of my very favourite books. The main character is just so unassuming but does such a heroic thing.

Trustee from the Toolroom is also good, and A Town Like Alice is, of course, a modern classic. I've also enjoyed Beyond the Black Stump and Requiem for a Wren. They are all of their time, though, with the attitudes that come with it.

On The Beach was never intended to be a cheerful read.

NadiaWadia Sat 16-May-15 23:55:02

Well, no, I don't think anyone would expect a cheerful read, given the situation the characters are in, it is meant to be disturbing. It's just that he deals with it so ineptly, IMO, that you end up being almost equally as disturbed by the characters' strange behaviour as by the awful situation they are in.

It makes it all seem quite unreal, so that you can't take it seriously, when possibly one of the author's aims at the time he wrote was to get people thinking about the Cold War and possible nuclear annihilation, and possibly taking action to help prevent it. If that was his intention, I can't help feeling that he failed dismally.

RaisingSteam Sun 17-May-15 00:11:03

Pastoral is one of my favourite stories. It was unexpectedly on Radio 4 once in the afternoon and had me sobbing behind the wheel of the car! I haven't read On The Beach so can't comment.

I've read quite a few Neville Shute as I quite like WW2 fiction and I think they are interesting and unusual angles. At least he does write female characters, but of course they reflect the time they were written. Don't give up on the basis of one book, I'd say.

NadiaWadia Sun 17-May-15 00:24:27

Oh I'm prepared to believe PPs that his other books are full of insight and good characterisation, etc. Although I can't see how, myself. Maybe 'On the Beach' was an early effort of his, and he improved later? But for myself I don't think I can be bothered to try him again.

I think the OP is going to give his others a go, though.

CoteDAzur Sun 17-May-15 17:57:29

On The Beach is among the absolute worse sci-fi I have ever read. And I say this as someone who has read been heavily reading sci-fi for three decades.

I have ranted about shared my thoughts on this book before here, here, and here. It is the incredibly silly story of how a group of people would NOT behave when faced with imminent death - not lifting a finger to save their own lives, talking about their careers, who will marry who and have children in the future etc. I pushed through and read it all thinking that there must be a point to it all, but there wasn't.

TweenageAngst Sun 17-May-15 18:19:29

I think On the Beach was one of his later novels. I agree I really didn't like it, possibly as it was a school text and that sucks all enjoyment out of a book.
A town like Alice, Requiem, Beyond the Black Stump, In the Wet and The far Country I all enjoyed. They are very much a product of the time they were written and Shute often seems conflicted by his upper middle class Englishness and the associated privilege and his attempts to get into the psyche of the lower classes. He draws a good character. I might read some more!

neverevernorever Sun 17-May-15 19:46:22

I loved On the Beach as a compelling thought experiment.

Those of you objecting to the behaviour of the charactars as carrying on as 'normal' - what would you envision them doing instead?

I think it's psychologically convincing that people would deal with the end of the world by pretending it wasn't happening. I can see why that would be preferable and psychogically less painful that fully admitting what was happening.

And yes, it is dated re women and social norms. But it's of its time; that's what you get with older books and it adds to their interest, I think!

MegBusset Sun 17-May-15 19:49:27

A Town Like Alice doesn't verge on casual racism, it is out and out racist. The Aborigines are treated pretty much like dumb animals throughout. That really spoiled the book for me.

CoteDAzur Sun 17-May-15 20:52:49

"Those of you objecting to the behaviour of the charactars as carrying on as 'normal' - what would you envision them doing instead?"

I sincerely recommend that you read a couple of books in the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic genre if you are really asking this. Or watch some movies like Deep Impact, Armageddon, War Of The Worlds, or 2012.

What those people should have done (and would have done, considering normal human drive for survival) is to never stop looking for a way out of their impending doom - use that submarine of theirs to transport everyone further South, dig living spaces & corridors and fashion home-made air-filter systems to live underground for as long as they can, hoping the fallout clears in a year or two. Stock vitamins, medicine, antibiotics, long-lasting food in cars and tins. Fight each other for a space on that submarine as it goes towards Antarctica, where their families can at least live several months longer.

Whatever, really. ANYTHING but sitting around like morons, talking about whether they should wait for hunting season & who will next get married and have babies, knowing full well that they will all be dead in several months.

"I think it's psychologically convincing that people would deal with the end of the world by pretending it wasn't happening"

ALL of them? A man saying he should take a job in another city and leave his wife and baby to die without him because it is good for his career - even if he is delusional, wouldn't you clobber him with a stick if that was your husband abandoning you while death approaches?

cornflakegirl Sun 17-May-15 23:09:13

Cote - thank you for the links to your rants I very much enjoyed them! Did Pom explain why it was reasonable that they didn't move to Antarctica?

Oh, and you were right about the film of Cloud Atlas - I watched it, thought it wad very pretty with lovely music, but hadn't the faintest idea what was going on. I read the Wikipedia entry on the book after, and it made much more sense. Is the book worth reading?

namechange0dq8 Mon 18-May-15 08:40:22

wouldn't you clobber him with a stick if that was your husband abandoning you while death approaches?

Although it made for a crap episode of New Tricks a while ago, it's pretty widely believed now that the entire bunker-bound "sub-regional government" model for post-nuclear Britain would have failed. Some years ago I chatted to someone on the periphery of that world, and he said that everyone, including both military and civil service seniors, knew that it was a charade. In reality, the vast majority of people with bunker tickets would have gone to their families rather than abandoning them. And as, paradoxically, the rules for what was in those days positive vetting meant that married men were much more likely to be involved than single men, there would be for practical purposes no-one in the bunker when it came to it.

neverevernorever Mon 18-May-15 12:40:47

CoteDAzur, I have read masses of apocolyptic / post-apocolyptic fiction, thanks, from Wells to Wyndam to Aldis to Atwood. It's precisely because On the Beach steps outside of the hackneyed and comfortable norms of the 'cosy catastrophe' and the Hollywood survival fable that I think it's interesting.

The people in On the Beach face massive cognitive dissonance due to their two conflicting realities - their antipodean life continuing relatively as normal, and their knowledge of what is to come. Many of them deal with the dissonance by denying the latter. It's an interesting take on the situation which I think has merit and which I think we see reflected in a smaller way the world over in extreme circumstances...

Zampa Mon 18-May-15 12:53:50

I loved On the Beach although it does have to be read within the context of its period.

People who had come through a world war, not knowing their fate, were expected to carry on as normal. Alongside the fact that the power of self denial is enormous, makes their behaviour entirely convincing (to me).

SorrelForbes Mon 18-May-15 12:59:39

It's been a while since I read this but hadn't everyone already been affected by the radiation rendering it pointless for them to seek new lives anywhere else?

NS is one of my favourite authors with Requiem For A wren being one of the most re-read books I own. I found On The Beach disturbing to say the least but concur with all of neverevernorever's comments above.

Rainbow and the Rose is another great read as is No Highway. Very much of their time but then that's one of the things I find so interesting about his work.

cornflakegirl Mon 18-May-15 13:54:27

I can agree with you that the idea of people collectively in denial is interesting. But towards the end of the book, they start to recognise practically that the end is coming - moving the fishing season, running the last motor races - so why doesn't this trickle down through society? The middle classes are allowed to start recognising that the end is coming, but the tram drivers, the club stewards, the street sweepers, the electricity generator technicians, they will all work right to the bitter end? John Osborne's mother dies, and he goes to stay at his club - what sort of person expects that the club staff - who are sick, and whose families are sick, and who are all going to die - should spend their last moments looking after him?! My mind is boggled!

Plus, they don't cuddle their dying baby.

CoteDAzur Mon 18-May-15 15:19:00

"hadn't everyone already been affected by the radiation rendering it pointless for them to seek new lives anywhere else? "

No. The toxic cloud was coming from the North and they were in Australia, so they could have tried going further South. They could use that submarine they have. They could be spending their remaining months knitting very thick clothing to survive life in Antarctica for a couple of months, going there in expeditions to make liveable spaces, see if they can survive until the toxic cloud dissipates.

Anything but sitting around sipping sherry and talking about not fishing outside of hunting season, because that might diminish the number of fish for next year. Next year!?! Don't they realise they will all be dead by then?

Band of imbeciles. I was thinking they should hurry up and die like the useless dummies that they are by the end of it.

(Still getting worked up about the days I spent reading that stupid book grin)

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