It’s 2016 and Thailand is quickly becoming the new Spain. Young travellers are seeking more exotic climbs, going farther than the familiarity of Ibiza’s sunset strip, the Mallorcan resort of Magaluf or the delights of the Costa del Sol and instead opting to sample Full Moon Parties on Koh Pha Ngan, elephant tours in Phuket or the lights of Bangkok.
Making the trip to that particular part of Southeast Asia is now genericism at its finest, but Richard, central character in Alex Garland’s The Beach, was 20 years ahead of the curve when he set foot on the Khao San Road – an infamous thoroughfare in the Thai capital.
Yet despite its age, it is still as attractive to prospective travellers now as it was then with Richard’s fictitious journey to find ‘The Beach,’ a mysterious part of coastline on the Gulf of Thailand, making for a gripping read.
One of the main reasons why it does so well to hold readers’ attention is because of the way it is laid out. Three, four and five page vignettes divide chapters up nicely, and this bitesize approach to writing entices chain reading and a ‘just one more’ mentality.
The pulsating start to the book sets a suspenseful tone on which its readability is predicated after Richard, a cynical British backpacker with a sense of adventure and a hint of rancour, meets an agitated Scotsman under the alias of Daffy Duck which leads him to acquiring a hand-drawn map with directions to a hidden island complete with a paradise-esque beach and lagoon.
It is an undertaking that he pursues with a French couple, who happen to be staying next door to Richard at their Bangkok hostel, and after an uncertain and treacherous excursion they arrive unscathed at the utopia to find an established community presided over by American Sal and her South African lover, Bugs.
Though as Richard and his new acquaintances find throughout, not everything is as meets the eye, and that constant feeling of discovery reflects the root of travel and the purpose of Richard’s trip – even though he deters from his original plans.
Richard is a character who gave me mixed feelings. Here we are presented with someone who seemingly wants to see the world, yet the way his character develops makes suggests that he’s only in Thailand to escape the monotony of day-to-day life in his hometown London suburb.
Garland agrees, having previously said: “I feel affectionate towards Richard, but I also feel in certain ways he’s stupid and vain. To me, Richard was the kind of guy you would often meet travelling, and you would get fed up pretty quick and not want to travel with.” The author also likened his main character to an 18 or 19-year-old version of himself.
Another parallel between the book and real-world travel is how Richard develops throughout after reacting to the things he experiences, even if there is the odd flare of cliché as the gradual installation of feelings towards Françoise, the female half of the French couple he befriends demonstrates.
The Beach’s explosive beginning and end are enticing, though it does set up a frustrating mid-book lull. In areas it can drag, and the anticipation of a seismic event is both a blessing and a curse, making the reader want to turn each page while simultaneously inducing frustration as the wait endures.
On the bright side, it shows to how well Garland can capture his audience and keep them on their toes, even cramming the most mundane part of the book with anticipation.
What can’t be forgotten is The Beach’s dark undertone, embodied by the constant reappearance of a bloodstained Daffy – a figment of Richard’s imagination – who commits suicide at the beginning of the story, shortly after attaching his map to the door of Richard’s single room. Even in this offshore paradise, this reoccurrence appears to be a reminder that the outside world cannot be escaped altogether, perhaps even in death.
Unencumbered adventure is what virtually all travellers seek when they hit the road and in heading to the beach, that’s exactly what Richard encountered. But this is an essential reminder that all that glitters isn’t necessarily gold. Not even the finest sand on one of Thailand’s most blissful beaches.
TT Rating: 8 out of 10
The Beach is the type of book that you won’t appreciate enough until you start the next read, but you can see why this particular novel was the cause of Garland’s rise to prominence in the mid-1990s. An exciting and appropriate read for the cultural traveller, The Beach should be on any serious list of travel publications.
Where can I buy it? Amazon currently stock the book for £8.99.