Review of Alex Garland’s international cult bestseller The Beach, nearly 15 years on
Every time I go back to visit family in Southampton I can’t help but make a quick stop to Shirley high street to wander about the charity shops to see what books they have on offer. I admit, I have more books on my shelf than I can read in the next 10 years, but I can’t help but buy more. Hoarder at heart <3. This year however I am definitely making a more concerted effort to read the stuff I own (see 2015 Book Challenge) by sleeping on the tube less and reading more. It’s a tough feat when you have to get up every morning around 7am to get ready and go to work, but that’s adult life for you. Anyway, I digress. I usually go to Cancer Research as they do a ludicrous offer of ‘3 books for a £1’ – cheaper than Amazon and giving money to charity at the same time – you can’t lose really. So during the Christmas holidays just gone by, I made my usual trip and was looking through some of the books when I stumbled across The Beach on the ‘3 books for a £1’ table. I remembered seeing the trailer for the movie as a youngin’ and a blurry recollection of the All Saints music video with Leonardo’s half-naked body swam across my mind. After reading the first sentence of the blurb, I quickly made my way to the till (I also purchased a copy of Oliver Twist and Tess of the d’Urbervilles).
I pretty much devoured this novel from page one. Alex Garland writes from the perspective of a twenty-something cute English guy called Richard, who has just landed in Bangkok – the first stop on the backpacker trail. On his first night in a dodgy hostel on Khao San Road while he’s trying to sleep through the sweltering heat and the hot guy and girl making loud sex noises in the room next to him, he hears a seemingly crazy guy who goes by the name Daffy Duck screaming “The Bitch!” into his phone. Turns out Daffy Duck was actually screaming about “The Beach!” – damn that Scottish accent. Before Richard has a moment to get the image of the next-door hot French girl – Francoise – out his head, Daffy has slit his own wrists and left himself to rot. But not before leaving Richard a map to The Beach.
It turns out that The Beach is a legend among young travellers in Thailand, and Francoise and her lovely boyfriend, Etienne, have heard rumours of it too. Tired of the typical and over-visited tourist trails, the three set off on an adventure to make their way to the mysterious beach, known to be a secret island paradise where the few who manage to make it there in one piece live in blissful isolation, untouched by the spoils of western civilisation. Richard soon discovers that The Beach is not all that it seems however. And that paradise ultimately comes at a price.
What I loved about this book most was Garland’s tight plotting and pace. Combined with its page-turning vignette style, the book is impossible to put down. I see myself as the adventurous traveller type (when I want to be), and through Richard’s relaxed narration, where his curiosity and desire to find something more in life takes him to The Beach, it was easy to get lost in the idyllic-ness and naivety of it all. I would probably be one of the crazies to swim across two kilometres of ocean to get to this unknown beach. The other factor about the book that makes it so fantastic is the realism of it all; it’s so believable, you want to pack your bags and catch a flight to Thailand to start a similar awe-inspiring adventure. I was really able to build on the picturesque imagery in the book from my experience of living in and around a lush green jungle and swimming drowsily about a waterfall in Borneo. It made me somewhat envious of Garland, who has spent a lot of his life backpacking throughout the world. Beats the 9-5 office life for sure.
The writing is colloquial without being cliché, emulating a kind of familiarity with Richard in the reader. This is something hard to come by and Garland gets the balance just right. We feel the danger, the hesitations, the confusion; the ominous spectre of something bad about to happen but we have no idea exactly what as we experience Richard’s crumbling morality and slow descent into madness. We feel his lust, his hunger for adventure, and his thirst for the truth – for something more.
This is a riveting first novel, dark and sinister, but also with plenty of laugh out loud moments intertwined with cultural references of the 90s. Time flies for the characters and the reader and before you know it you’re transported back to your grimy seat on the tube with the hairy guy sitting next to you breathing sweatily way too close to your neck. The suspense really does grip you unawares.
Don’t watch the movie though. It probably has to be the worst adaptation of a movie I’ve ever seen, if you can even call it that. Minus 5 stars for the movie.
Book rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐