This book was written in 1957, and set in 1963. Nuclear war has wiped out the Northern Hemisphere, and radioactive winds are making their way down to the Southern Hemisphere. The people living in the southernmost countries know that when the winds reach them, they too will die.
There are five main characters in the book, which is largely set in Melbourne, where people are trying to go about their daily lives in as normal a way as possible. People continue to go to work and in many cases, continue to plan for a future which they know they will never see. One of the characters is American Submarine Captain, Lieutenant Dwight Towers, who was in Australia when war broke out. He knows that his wife and children back home in America must be dead, but he cannot accept it. He forms a friendship with Moira Davidson, a young woman who drinks too much and parties too hard to blot out her anger at her imminent death due to a war that her country had no part of. Peter and Mary Holmes are a young couple with a baby daughter, and the cast of characters is rounded out by John Osbourne, an Australian scientist. When Dwight’s submarine is commissioned to investigate radio signals coming from Seattle, Peter and John are part of the staff who go with him.
I enjoyed this book, but can’t help feeling that it is somewhat dated now. I would like to believe that in the face of such horror, people would still remain courteous and civil, and would continue to keep living as normal a life as possible – but I just don’t see that happening. It seems more realistic to imagine that there would be widespread panic, and that chaos and anarchy would descend. All that most of these people – Moira excluded, although even she seems somewhat accepting of her fate – seem to feel is a vague sense of sadness. For example, Mary Holmes seems more concerned with the prospect of her baby daughter catching Measles than dying of radiation.
And yet, it is this sense of normalcy, of routine, that lends the book a chilling air. People carry on, because what else can they do? A mother won’t stop worrying about her daughter getting an illness that can be avoided, just because a far bigger problem is on the way.
There were moments of real poignancy; when John Osbourne buys a Ferrari that he can’t really handle, and takes up motor racing – because why not? (It is not giving away anything too spoilerish to say that the motor race near the end of the book was one of my favourite parts.) Dwight Towers goes shopping for gifts for his wife and children, knowing deep down that he will never be able to hand them over. It was the moments like this that really made me think. It’s always worth bearing in mind that the book was written during the Cold War, when nuclear warfare was a very real fear for many people. It did make me think – what would I do? What would you do? Try and complete some kind of bucket list, sink into a deep depression, or just try and carry on as normal? Who knows? (And hopefully, we will never have to know.)
As I mentioned earlier, the book has not aged particularly well, and I found it hard to believe that most people would behave in the way that the characters here behaved. For that reason, I did not find the book as chillling as other post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels which I have read. However, for anyone with an interest in the genre, this is certainly a worthwhile addition to their collection, and I would recommend it.