The Beach (novel)
|14 October 1996|
|Media type||Print (hardcover and paperback)|
This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (March 2021)
The Beach is a 1996 novel by English author Alex Garland. Set in Thailand, it is the story of a young backpacker's search for a legendary, idyllic and isolated beach untouched by tourism, and his time there in its small, international community of backpackers.
Richard, a British backpacker meets a mentally disturbed Scot going by the alias of Daffy Duck at a hotel in Bangkok. Daffy tells Richard about a beautiful island with a hidden lagoon and beach, located in the Gulf of Thailand, where he settled years prior. The beach is inaccessible to tourists and can only be located by a map, which Daffy leaves for Richard. Shortly thereafter, Richard discovers that Daffy has died by suicide. Wanting company in his search, Richard befriends a travelling French couple, Étienne and Françoise, and the trio sets out to find what they hope might be an untouched paradise.
On their way to the island, Richard gives a copy of the map to Sammy and Zeph, two Americans he meets on Koh Samui. When the three finally reach the hidden beach — after bribing a local boat pilot, swimming from an adjacent island, discovering a cannabis plantation in the jungle, and avoiding its armed owners, and eventually jumping over a waterfall — they discover a group of approximately 30 backpackers who have largely shut off the outside world to live a slow-paced life of leisure under the de facto leadership of an American woman called Sal and her South African lover Bugs, who, along with Daffy, founded the community there in 1989. They reside in hand-built wooden huts and tents, located near a large, beautiful beach and lagoon that are encircled by cliffs and connected to the sea by underwater caves.
When Richard, Étienne, and Françoise arrive, it is already 1995, six years after the founders came to the beach. The founders have chosen only a small number of friends and acquaintances to come to the island, and thus newcomers are not welcome, but they are not sent away because doing so would jeopardize the secrecy of the community. The residents fear that if word gets out, the beach will become overrun with tourists and ruined, like many of Thailand's other beauty spots. They are also mindful of upsetting the Thai cannabis farmers, with whom they originally agreed to keep to separate territories but who have more recently warned them not to bring anyone new to the island, as the farmers fear discovery by the police. After initial suspicion, the group accepts the trio when they explain about Daffy's map and his death back on the mainland.
As the community aims to be self-sufficient, work is divided into rosters for gardening, fishing, cooking, and carpentry. Richard, Françoise, and Étienne become part of the fishing detail.
For several months, Richard finds life on the island idyllic, fishing in the mornings and relaxing the rest of the time. He befriends a few other members of the community: Keaty, a fellow Englishman hooked on his Game Boy; Gregorio, a Spaniard on his fishing detail; Unhygienix, the Italian head chef obsessed with soap, as he handles fish every day; Jesse and Cassie, two lovers; Ella, who works second-in-command to Unhygienix; and finally, Jed, the loner of the group whose mysterious job involves going alone into the jungle. Richard later discovers that Sal has assigned Jed to be the island's guardian: He watches the sea and shores of the neighboring islands for any signs of people attempting to discover the beach. Jed also has a sideline of stealing some cannabis from the Thai farmers' side of the island.
One day, Unhygienix informs everyone that their rice supply has been infected by a fungus, and Sal announces an emergency rice run — an occasional discreet trip to the mainland by boat to bulk-buy rice and other essentials. Due to the laborious nature of the task, no one volunteers for it except Jed, who, to the bewilderment of most others, always takes the job.
Richard also volunteers, and so the two travel back to Koh Phangan for their supplies. It is during the rice run that Jed learns that Richard gave a copy of the map to Sammy and Zeph, when Jed coincidentally wanders past and overhears the two Americans relaying the urban legend of the beach to some Germans.
The rice run goes without a hitch, but soon, accompanied by three Germans they met on the mainland, Zeph and Sammy make their way to the nearest island to the beach, which worries Richard, as he will be blamed if they successfully reach the community. Soon afterward, Sal reassigns Richard to the perimeter detail to partner with Jed and keep a close eye on the potential invaders.
With a free spot in Gregorio's fishing detail, Keaty takes Richard's place. A few days later, he mistakenly catches a dead squid that gives severe food poisoning to most of the group. The few remaining healthy members struggle to nurse the sick residents back to health.
Richard returns from his sentry duty to find that Bugs has punched Keaty in the face for his mistake. Richard, having never liked Bugs' arrogant nature, instigates a heated argument with him in front of the whole group, which leads to a division of the community into several cliques. On this day, only two of the fishing details are still in operation, and the best detail, comprising three Swedes — Christo, Sten, and Karl — who fish outside the safe lagoon area, is attacked by a shark.
The camp only finds out about the shark attack upon the return of one of the three, Karl, in the early evening. Karl carries Sten on his back to the village, where Sten is discovered to have already bled to death. While Karl was not physically harmed by the shark, he suffers severe emotional trauma from having watched his friend die. He subsequently spends his time sitting in a dug-out hole on the beach and not talking to anyone, barely accepting food and water.
Richard realizes that Christo is still missing and, at his own risk, retrieves him from partially submerged caves of the lagoon. Richard is praised for his heroic rescue of Christo, who at first seems fine but later collapses, owing to the internal bleeding from having been rammed by the shark. Due to Christo's grave wounds, he requires Jed's presence in the camp, because only Jed has the medical knowledge to tend to him. This leaves Richard to work the sentry detail alone.
A few days later, a funeral is held for Sten near the jungle waterfall, and Sal gives a decisive speech that somewhat restores social harmony. She announces that it is 11 September, so they will thus be celebrating the Tet festival in three days' time.
Spending long hours alone in the forest as he hikes between lookout spots, Richard begins to experience hallucinations in which Daffy appears: They converse and patrol together the part of the island that Richard refers to as the DMZ. Richard comes to appreciate that Daffy killed himself because he could neither endure the unravelling of his elitist vision of the beach as the group grew in size, nor bear the thought of a return to either backpacking or settled life, and notes that he is also falling prey to that way of thinking.
Richard realizes the reason why Daffy gave him the map — as well as spread rumors of the island all over Thailand — so that many travelers would come looking for the beach, inevitably leading to its becoming a tourist destination. Daffy describes this act as "euthanizing" the community, and Richard was merely a pawn in Daffy's revenge plan.
This comes to a head following the arrival of the American/German group by raft. Unlike Richard, Étienne, and Françoise, who managed to overcome all obstacles in getting to the beach, the newcomers never make it past the most dangerous hurdle: the cannabis farmers. Richard witnesses them being first beaten violently and then dragged away. The sound of gunshots implies that the farmers have murdered the intruders.
Richard returns to the community campsite to immediately inform Sal and Jed of what happened. He then goes to the beach to visit Karl, who attacks Richard, provoking Richard to attack him before he gets free and runs off into the jungle. On the day of the Tet festival, Sal obliquely asks Richard to kill Karl because of the threat he poses to the group's now-fragile social integrity, complaining that she constantly has to lift morale in the wake of the poisoning incident and Sten's death.
Richard swims out to the cave where the group's only boat is kept, only to find that Karl has used it to escape to the mainland. Étienne corners Richard thereafter, and Richard soon discovers that Étienne, along with the rest of his clique, has become frightened of Richard's "doing things" for Sal. Disillusioned with the beach, Richard convinces Étienne, Françoise, Jed, and a paranoid Keaty to leave the beach for good, and euthanizes the dying Christo. Now fully aware of what Sal is willing to do to protect the beach, they decide to spike the food for the Tet celebration and escape on the raft that the doomed backpackers used.
Night falls, and the party begins. People are in a celebratory mood, drinking fermented coconut milk. Prior to dinner, Keaty and Richard spike the stew that Unhygienix cooked with a huge quantity of cannabis to immobilize the group. Richard and his friends are about to slip away when the cannabis farmers arrive, threatening all of them with guns, as they believe that the beach dwellers invited the recent arrivals. The farmers beat up Richard and leave the bloodied corpses of the American/German backpackers as a warning. At the sight of this, the extremely intoxicated group experiences a collective mental breakdown and starts to rip the corpses apart in a frenzy.
Sal discovers that Richard has spread the secret of the beach when she picks up the map he drew for Zeph and Sammy. Upon hearing this, the now unstable community members attack Richard with sharp objects. Richard believes that he is about to die, but he is saved when Françoise, Étienne, Keaty, and Jed return from the beach armed with their fishing spears to drive the others off, seriously wounding Sal and Bugs in the process. Richard and his rescuers make their planned escape on the raft.
In the epilogue, it is revealed that the five friends got away and split up when they reached the mainland. It has been a year and one month since their departure from Thailand, and Richard has returned home to England. He hasn't heard from Françoise and Étienne, but states he is likely to bump into them eventually, because "the world is a small place, and Europe is even smaller". He still maintains contact with Keaty and Jed. By chance, Keaty and Jed end up working new jobs in the same building, although for different companies; similar to how they both happened to stay in the same guest house years before they first met at the beach.
Richard hears in a news report that Cassie has been arrested in Malaysia for smuggling a large amount of heroin and will be the first Westerner to be executed in the country in six years. He wonders whether anyone else got off the island, particularly Unhygienix, whom he liked. He believes that Bugs died and hopes that Sal died too, because he dislikes the idea of her "turning up on his doorstep".
Richard finishes by saying that he is content with his life, although he carries a lot of scars: "I like the way that sounds. I carry a lot of scars".
- Richard – a young English traveller and the main narrator of the novel.
- Daffy (Mister Duck) – A Scottish traveller and one of the three original founders of the beach; appears as a mental apparition in Richard's consciousness in the later parts of the novel after his suicide.
- Étienne and Françoise – both French; two young lovers who befriended Richard during their initial encounter in Bangkok, and subsequently join him in searching for the beach after Richard shows them the map.
- Keaty – English; becomes close friends with Richard, and shares a Game Boy addiction. Invited by Sal and Bugs to the beach after they enjoy going on a jungle trek with him over the Burmese border.
- Jed – English; becomes close friends with Richard, and is the island's watchman. Turned up on the beach without a personal invitation, having overheard a rumor of the island while traveling in Vientiane. Daffy is the sole person in the community completely against his uninvited arrival.
- Sal – American; one of the three original founders of the beach, and the unofficial leader of the community.
- Zeph and Sammy – The two stoner Americans to whom Richard leaves a copy of the map to the beach.
- Bugs – South African; Sal's boyfriend, one of the three original founders of the beach, and the community's head carpenter; has a mutual dislike with Richard.
- Gregorio – Spanish; member of Richard's fishing detail. Invited by Daffy to the beach after a robbing incident in Sumatra.
- Unhygienix – Italian; the community's head chef and is friends with Richard. Invited by Bugs to the beach after cooking him an excellent meal in Srinagar.
- Ella – Works in the cooking detail next to Unhygienix. Invited by Sal to the beach after bonding over a backgammon game whilst on an eighteen-hour bus ride together.
- Jean – French; leader of the gardening detail. Invited by Bugs to the beach after working together picking grapes from a vineyard in Blenheim.
- Cassie – English; girlfriend of Jesse; works with Bugs in the carpentry detail.
- Jesse – New Zealander; boyfriend of Cassie, and works with Jean in the gardening detail.
- Moshe – Israeli; head of the second fishing detail. Invited by Daffy to the beach after catching a street thief attempting to steal his backpack in Manila.
- The Yugoslavian Girls – Two unnamed females from Sarajevo in which Richard comments their names are hard to spell out or even pronounce, and are thus dubbed as the Yugo Girls. He gets the impression that they are haughty and aloof, and never gets to know them very well. They work with Moshe exclusively in the second fishing detail, as Sal regrets inviting them to the beach seeing as they aren't capable of doing anything else.
- Karl, Sten, and Christo (The Swedes) – all Swedish; Considered the best fishing detail since only they are comfortable with swimming through the submerged caves to fish in the open water. Only Sten is fluent in English, with Christo having fair knowledge, and Karl knowing only a few words. Like Jed, the Swedes arrived uninvited, as they learned of the beach's existence after overhearing Sal discussing with Jean about the island during a Rice Run.
- The cannabis farmers – A small group of Thai farmers armed with assault rifles, who live in and maintain a large illegal cannabis field on the far side of the island, presumably exporting it to the mainland for sale. They've been on the island longer than the backpackers, but Sal, Daffy and Bugs came to an agreement with them early in the community's history. Part of Jed's and later Richard's job is to periodically sneak into their field and steal cannabis off the plants for the village's supply. When Richard is assigned to watch duty alone, he takes to stalking the guards through the jungle simply for the thrill.
Maya Bay in Phi Phi was used as the location of the beach in the movie but the actual inspiration for the book is rumoured to be Haad Tien on Koh Phangan, in the Gulf of Thailand, specifically the hippy community that started up in 1990 - the year the book is set - and evolved into The Sanctuary resort. 
Novelist Nick Hornby referred to The Beach as "a Lord of the Flies for Generation X", and the Sunday Oregonian called it "Generation X's first great novel". The Washington Post wrote that it is "a furiously intelligent first novel" and "a book that moves with the kind of speed and grace many older writers can only day-dream about." Publishers Weekly wrote that "Garland is a good storyteller, though, and Richard's nicotine-fueled narrative of how the denizens of the beach see their comity shatter and break into factions is taut with suspense, even if the bloody conclusion offers few surprises".
- "BBC - The Big Read". BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 31 October 2012
- Esrock, Robin (1 June 2011). "An island of one's own: paradise found in the Philippines". The Globe and Mail.
- Cummings, Joe (17 November 2020). "How a secretive hippie hideaway in Thailand transformed into a world-renowned beach retreat". CNN.
- "TROUBLE IN PARADISE". Washington Post. 9 February 1997. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 18 February 2019.
- "The Beach". Publishers Weekly. Retrieved 30 October 2020.