By Marty Mulrooney
Alex Garland’s The Beach was first printed in 1996. I have just finished reading it 10 minutes ago, during the first minutes of the 28th of July 2009, after 48 hours of not being able to put it down. I was prompted to read the book after re-watching the Danny Boyle film adaptation on Film4 several nights ago (in fact, it was a Friday night, as these viewings so often are.)
That film has always held a strange position in my mind, especially on a critical level. Some of it works fantastically. The soundtrack, the scenery, the momentarily perfect capturing of scenes of unbridled living and life itself. Sadly this is also punctuated with many scenes and instances that just don’t work at all. Still… this is a review of the book, not the film. I just felt some context was in order.
So I watched the film again, feeling as mixed about it as ever. And then I notice that my girlfriend’s mother has the book on a shelf when I am visiting the next day. So I pick it up, meaning only to browse momentarily, the film fresh in my mind. I had certainly heard that the film had taken many liberties with the plot and narrative structure present in the source material, so perhaps that piped my curiosity.
I began to read, and before I knew it… I was totally sucked in. I don’t quite know how it happened, but I think in part it is undeniably due to the central character himself, Richard. Told from his perspective, the relative detachment of the film created due to its star power transforms into the personal thoughts of a rapidly unwinding mind belonging to a troubled English traveller in the novel, who is constantly looking for something new, fresh… somewhere like the beach.
When staying overnight in Bangkok, a stoned traveller named Daffy slits his wrists, but not before leaving a map on Richard’s door. A map leading to the titular beach, an urban myth, a legend amongst young travellers in Thailand telling of a community living in a modern day Eden. But paradise comes at a price. The setting and location is a character in the book as much as any of the travellers, and the detail with which the surroundings are described prove to be vivid and razor sharp.
The thing I immediately loved about the novel, as initially mentioned at the beginning of the review, was Richard. It is scary to think that, although many of his thoughts and actions seem completely insane, upon reflection it is hard to imagine how you yourself (the reader) would have coped any better. The book flies through a whole range of emotions, from sheer adventure and exploration, to feelings of loneliness and isolation, before eventually verging on horrors that sickened me to the pit of my stomach yet wouldn’t allow me to stop reading. The fact that many scenes held such emotional weight speaks volumes of Garland’s ability to shape unique characters with ease, no small feat when it is considered that by the time Richard reaches the beach, a whole community of characters are juggled around on a regular basis. This never becomes confusing, and it constantly had me smirking how Richard would often think in his own head what I myself had only just been thinking moments before, be it about another character, or an unfolding event. Furthermore, for reasons I cannot quite pinpoint, the ending left me with a sense of overwhelming sadness. I think I was sorry my trip was finally over.
Finally, the book works very well because it isn’t romanticised. As in real life, two people may be attracted and never end up together. The characters have faults, and by the end of the book Richard has a lot of scars. A lot of scars. I wouldn’t want it any other way. You get to journey with him, smoke dope with him, live in a paradise community with him, hidden from the world. And when the shit hits the fan, you realise that you are nearly as mad as he is. As a modern day Lord Of The Flies, and a darkly humorous commentary on the parasitic way tourism is raping the planet, the book excels in ways the film adaptation didn’t even attempt to succeed. Boringly as a reviewer, yet truthfully as a fan of this literary work, I cannot divulge any further plot points without taking away some of the journey from a fresh minded reader. All I can say is that, if you enjoyed the film, please read the book. The parts of the film that worked? This book, cover to cover is all of those parts and so much more. I may have been 13 years late, but in this case it was definitely better to have been late than never. A fantastic summer read.
9 OUT OF 10
As an alternative to the book, the aforementioned Danny Boyle film adaptation will also be reviewed at a later date.