My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I imagine the elevator speech for this book being, “Lord of the Flies done Paul Theroux style.” While that may or may not sound appealing, this is one of the most gripping novels I’ve read recently.
The Beach will have its greatest appeal with travelers because understanding the mindset of a traveler versus that of a tourist (vagabonds versus regular folk, if you prefer) is essential to being able to feel the realism in the behavior of the book’s characters. (If you don’t know the difference between a traveler and a tourist, it’s safe to say that you are a regular person who travels as a tourist.) Like Moby Dick, this is a book about all-consuming obsession, but the obsession is in finding and protecting the traveler’s paradise. (Such a paradise is partially defined by a complete lack of tourists.) Unlike Moby Dick, The Beach isn’t rambling, and it maintains tension throughout.
The story beings on Khao San Road in Bangkok, a familiar haunt for backpackers and other low-budget world travelers. The protagonist, Richard, has just gotten in to Bangkok and checks into a hostel. Rooming next to Richard is a Scottish man named “Daffy” who seems to be a complete lunatic and who keeps talking aloud to himself about a “beach.” Owing to the accent, Richard first thinks Daffy is talking about a “bitch,” but soon realizes the man’s obsession is with a patch of sand. Richard has a brief and unusual interaction with Daffy, who throws a lit joint onto Richard’s bed. In the morning, Richard finds a meticulously hand drawn map on his door with “the Beach” prominently labeled. When he goes to see why the crazy stranger left it for him; he knocks on Daffy’s ajar door to find the man has committed suicide.
The beach is on one of the small islands that are kept off-limits as part of the Thai National Parks system. Richard teams up with a French couple who was also staying next to him. While Richard had heard their amorous sounds through the thin walls on the night he met Daffy, he didn’t meet the couple until they were all called in to talk to the police about Daffy’s suicide. For some reason Richard is unwilling to tell the police about the map, but he does tell the Frenchman. The map leads them to the island. It isn’t easy to get to. Once on the island, they discover they must get through a grove of marijuana guarded by heavily armed locals to get to the fabled beach.
It turns out a small community of travelers has already set up on the idyllic beach. As with any group, some people get along well and others rub each other the wrong way. We get the best insight into those individuals who become the friends and enemies of Richard, and many of the others are the novel equivalent of movie extras. At first, all is well on the island. Richard and the French couple have to do work a few hours a day on the fishing detail, but otherwise they are living in their Eden. However, as things begin to go wrong—and they do go frightfully wrong—Richard and others begin to be confronted by the question of what they are willing to do to protect the Beach, and how will their personal moralities be twisted in the process.
Garland uses a couple of interesting techniques in the book. First, Richard is plagued by dreams featuring Daffy, and later–as the burden of secrets to which he is party piles up—he begins to have hallucinations of Daffy during the day. In both cases, it seems that the dreams and hallucinations are an attempt to help him work out the mysteries of the Beach. No one on the island will tell him about Daffy, and he is desperate to know what drove the man mad—or whether he was always like that. There’s one character, Jed, who goes off every day and no one seems to know where he goes or what he does. Eventually, Richard comes to be in on some of these secrets (e.g. becoming Jed’s partner), and the burden of knowledge doesn’t improve his state of mind. In the end, Richard seems to realize that he is the new Daffy, and what drove Daffy into madness will surely do the same for him if he doesn’t get off the island.
Second, Garland uses what—for lack of a better term—might be called foreshadowing. However, it’s not so much a matter of subtle hints as a bold statements such as [paraphrasing], “It’s too bad _________ would die, especially in the way he did.” This should have seemed ham-handed, but there’s always enough mystery about what will come next that the these tips were like lighter fluid to intensify one’s reading so one could find out what would happen next and how.
I whole-heartedly recommend this novel, and think it’s one of the best pieces of travel-oriented writing that I’ve read. It’s a page-turn from beginning to end.