Saturday 5 May 2012

TRAVEL MONTH REVIEW - 'The Beach', Alex Garland (Penguin 1997)

Richard, a seasoned traveller, is passed on details of a secret idyllic island community on his first night in Bangkok. This starts a quest for an apparent utopia tha has far reaching effects on his perceptions, friendships and psyche.

So I couldn't really do a travel month without reviewing the most famous title in travel ficiton in the last 15 years now, could I? Well, I could, but it would have been a travel month with a great big gaping Beach-shaped hole in it. I first read this book in about 1998 when I started university. I was THE book to read at the time. Everyone had either been on a gap year on was planning a jaunt to South-East Asia and if you hadn't read this then you would have a copy shoved under your nose at every opportunity. Since then it appears to have become a bit of a modern classic, with the author going on to script UK and Hollywood blockbusters.

Escape through travel works. Almost from the moment I boarded my flight, life in England became meaningless. Seat-belt signs lit up, problems switched off. Broke armrest took precedence over broken hearts. By the time the plane was airborne I'd forgotten England even existed.

The BeachMy own memories of this are a little more vague and mixed, much of which has to do with a memory tainted by the truely dire film adaptation a few years after it's release. How can the director responsible for Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire produce such an awful adaptation? To be fair it's been a few years since I saw the whole thing, but it was on the telly a few months back and I got so annoyed with it that I switched off halfway through.

Anyway, I'm not here to talk about the film (but I will. A bit. You'll see why soon). Back to the book. I have to admit I wasn't particularly relishing the thought of reading this one again. My first impression when I found a copy on the library shelf - I DON'T REMEMBER IT BEING THAT LONG. That's never a good start to any book-reader relationship. I was expecting it, rather unfairly, to be rambling and slow-paced. Not sure why. On the plus side, I had genuinely forgotton the specifics of the ending. Which is a great thing when embarking on a re-read. This is why I am able to re-read Agatha Christie's on a constant loop and still being genuinely surprised when the perpetrator is revealed is the drawing room at the end. She did write A LOT of books, mind...
The Beach

So, The Beach. Well  I am happy to say that it was a brilliant, gripping read. In a book where most of the action takes place on an island where not an awful lot of obvious goings-on are, well going on, the pace is taut and the story fascinating.

The Beach  (Popular Penguins)The masterstroke is Richard. Our narrator is, the put it bluntly, a complete arsehole. But the skill is the fact that he is engaging arsehole and you want to hear more from him all the time. He thinks things that we all suspect we may feel ourselves, deep down, but would never admit to.Wouldn't want to be stuck on a desert island with him, mind. He slow descent into a rather dubious psychological mindset is subtle and believable. And shockingly done. The dropping in of a blunt statement here and there reminds us that this man is teetering on the edge.

...But I was also buzzing. It looked like the problem with our uninvited guests was about to be solved, and if that wasn't enough, I was also going to find out what happened when the dope guards caught someone. Better than that I was actually going to see it.

I think the reason that I loathed the film so much is that they tried to make the audience like Richard, and if not like, then sympathise with him, which completely misses the point of the whole thing, in my opinion. I mean, the Leonardo version gets the girl, for Christ's sake. Richard would NEVER get the girl.

All the the supporting characters are surprisingly developed, given there's quite a few of them. My only niggle was the female characters. Self-appointed leader Sal - the one character with such unconvincing dialogue - she's like a bad caricature of a cult leader - surely if someone's talks like this, you would be automatically suspicious of their motives? Also, Francoise, nothing against her, per se, it's just the key female characters here are all portrayed as arch-manipulators, which is a touch irritating and seems like the author seems to be ramming home a point. I love a well-written bad girl, but it's also good to have a bit of balance, I reckon.

Also, the ending. THAT ENDING. I don't think it will be particularly spoilery to say that they don't all exchange hugs and farewell presents, then disappear of to their respective homelands, with a future of exchanging witty emails and the like. The tension leading up to it was GLORIOUS. I really, honestly, could not remember the specifics of it and well, when it came I was like, really, REALLY?

No, but REALLY?????

It doesn't pull any punches, but felt like a massive cop out. I can't say anymore, sorry. Just read it and let me know what you reckon. Or let me know if you've had a ganders recently.

This book brings up so many questions that make my brain hurt. This is a good thing and I think everyone should read something like this every now and again. But avoid the film. Or you might end up writing off the book for like, 14 years or so and only reading it again when you feel like you have to for your travel month. And, well ,the rest is history.


BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I could go on. Um, don't listen to mad-as-fuck Scottish nutters who pass you strange maps in dodgy Bangkok hostels before they top themselves? Don't share your island 'paradise' with a bunch of militant drug lords? Um, don't be naive enough to think you can claim paradise as your own because paradise bites back in a big way? And maybe phone home once in a while to stop yourself going crazy. Oh, and there's really nothing wrong with following the usual backpacker trail, It's actually quite fun. That's why lots of people have done it. Duh...


  1. Haha, I like your tips at the end!

    I have only seen the movie and that was when it first came out but I am definitely interested in reading the book!

    1. Definitely read the book! It is NOTHING like the film. They changed so much, for the worst, I reckon. I was very surprised at how gripping a read this was

  2. I love those travel tips. You've just reminded me that I've actually READ the book and remember very little about it. Perhaps watching the film adaptation has erased my memories of the story? I'm not sure. I don't recall much about the book at all except for a vague feeling of possibly enjoying the book?

    1. It's weird - the ending is very memorable, maybe not for the right reasons, yet I had completely forgotten what happened too! It was definitely worth another look though.

  3. Agreed about the ending - I think he wasn't sure where he had led himself, and just wrote a get-out.
    But i do think the females were portrayed as you say, because everyone was. Seriously, pretty much everyone there was messed up in some way, had loads of baggage and let it get in the way of every interaction they had. Hence the community was doomed to fail from the start.
    You have to think what sort of person is desperate to find an exclusive paradise... seriously misanthropic ones who can't get on with others?

    1. Hello Rich! I think the only character who comes across as having even an ounce of decency is Etienne. Good point about the sort of people they are - I think you can sum it all up by saying they all have 'issues'!