The Beach (novel)
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
The Beach is a 1996 travel/backpacking 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.
In a cheap hostel on the Khao San Road in Bangkok, Richard, a young English traveller, meets a strange Scotsman going by the alias of Daffy Duck who leaves him a hand-drawn map, with directions to a beautiful island with a hidden lagoon and beach, located in the Gulf of Thailand and inaccessible to tourists. After receiving the map, Richard discovers that Daffy has committed suicide. Wanting company in his search, Richard befriends a travelling French couple, Étienne and Françoise, and the trio sets out to find what they believe could be paradise on earth.
On their way to the island, Richard gives a copy of the map to Sammy and Zeph, two American Harvard students he meets in Koh Samui. When the three travellers finally reach the beach—after bribing a local boat contractor, taking a long swim, trekking the dense jungle, stumbling across a cannabis plantation and avoiding its armed guards, and eventually jumping down a waterfall—they discover a tight-knit and partially self-sufficient community of backpackers which has almost completely shut itself off from the outside world and has developed an amicable hierarchy under the quasi-dictatorial rule of a young American woman called Sal and her South African lover, Bugs, who, along with Daffy, discovered the beach and founded the community there in 1989. The three went under the aliases of Sylvester (modified as "SALvester" and hence, Sal), Bugs (Bugs Bunny) and Daffy (Daffy Duck). They live in a small village of hand-built wooden huts and tents, located near a large and beautiful beach and lagoon that is encircled and hidden from view by cliffs on the seaward side and the island behind it, connected to the sea by underwater caves.
When Richard, Étienne, and Françoise arrive, it is already 1995, six years after the founders discovered the beach. Only a small number of friends and acquaintances are chosen by the original founders to come to the island, and thus newcomers who were not given a personal invitation are not welcome, but are not sent away because to do 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 travel destinations. 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 obviously fear discovery of their illicit drug operation by the local authorities. The trio manage to incorporate themselves into the group and are quickly accepted because they tell the community about Daffy and his death back on the Thai mainland.
Since the community is mostly self-sufficient in terms of food and infrastructure, work is well-organized and there are a number of details, or work rosters, for the garden, fishing, cooking, and carpentry. Along with Françoise and Étienne, Richard becomes a part of the fishing detail. During his first few months, Richard finds life idyllic on the island, dividing his time between work duties and leisurely activities. He finds friends in a few other members of the community: Keaty, a fellow Englishman hooked on his Game Boy; Gregorio, a Spanish traveller part of his fishing detail; Unhygienix, the Italian head chef with an intense obsession for bath soap since he handles fish every day; Jesse and Cassie, two lovers who work in the gardening and carpentry detail, respectively; Ella, who works second-in-command with Unhygienix in the cooking detail; and finally, Jed—the enigmatic loner of the group whose sole separate detail is shrouded in mystery. Richard later discovers that Jed has been assigned by Sal as the island's guardian: a sentry who 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 chore wherein a few community members are required to head to the mainland discreetly by boat to bulk-buy rice and other essential supplies. Due to the laborious nature of the task, hardly anyone 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 finds out that Richard gave a copy of the map to Sammy and Zeph when Jed coincidentally wandered past and overhears the two Americans relaying the urban legend of the beach to some German backpackers. 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 neighbouring island, which worries Richard because he might be blamed if they successfully reach the community. Coinciding with this troubling development, Sal reassigns Richard to the perimeter detail to partner with Jed and keep a close eye on the impending invaders.
With a free spot in Gregorio's fishing detail, Keaty moves in to take Richard's place. A few days later, Keaty mistakenly catches a dead squid that gives severe food poisoning to most of the group, with the few remaining healthy members struggling to nurse the sick residents back to health. Richard returns from his sentry duty high on the island to find that Bugs has punched Keaty in the face for his mistake in supplying the dead squid to the cooks. Richard, having never liked Bugs due to his stoic and arrogant nature, instigates a heated argument with him in front of the whole community, 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, consisting of three Swedes—Christo, Sten, and Karl—who fish outside the safe lagoon area, is attacked by a shark. The camp only finds out about this with 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. Karl was not physically hurt by the shark, but he suffers severe emotional trauma from having witnessed 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, goes to find him in the partially submerged caves of the lagoon. Richard is praised for his heroic rescue of Christo. However, as Christo is gravely wounded, 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 on the island.
A few days later, a funeral is held for Sten near the jungle waterfall, and Sal gives a decisive speech which goes some way to restoring social harmony within the camp. She announces that it is the 11th of September, and that they will thus be celebrating the Tet festival in three days' time—this will be the sixth birthday for the beach community and she suggests they celebrate it as a "fresh start" for the group. Spending long hours alone in the forested interior of the island as he hikes between lookout spots, Richard begins to experience hallucinations in which Daffy appears: they converse and patrol the part of the island which Richard refers to as the DMZ together. Richard comes to appreciate that Daffy killed himself because he could neither endure the slow unravelling of his elitist vision of the beach as the group grew beyond a handful, nor bear the thought of a return to backpacking or to settled life, and notes that he himself is falling prey to that way of thinking. Richard also realizes that Daffy gave him the map—as well as spreading rumors of the island to others like him—so many travellers would ultimately find the beach and destroy its secrecy, leading to its inevitable transformation into a tourist destination. Daffy describes this act as "euthanizing" the community, and Richard realizes he was merely a pawn in Daffy's revenge plan. This comes to a peak following the arrival of the American/German group, by raft. Unlike Richard, Étienne, and Françoise who managed to overcome the five main obstacles in getting to the beach, the newcomers never make it past the fourth hurdle: the cannabis field guarded by the Thai farmers. Richard witnesses them being first beaten violently and then taken away. Afraid to see any further, Richard runs away, but hears the ominous sound of fired gunshots, implying 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, after being provoked, attacks Richard and runs off into the jungle. On the day of the Tet festival, Sal obtusely asks Richard to kill Karl because of the threat he poses to the mood of the celebrations and the group's now-fragile social integrity, complaining that she constantly has to lift the "morale" of the community in the wake of the poisoning incident and Sten's death. Richard, disillusioned with the community, finally resolves to escape with his closest friends. That night, he 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 him thereafter and soon discovers that he, along with the rest of his clique, has become afraid of Richard "doing things" for Sal. Richard convinces Étienne, Françoise, Jed, and a now 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 party and escape on the raft that the doomed backpackers used.
Night falls, and the Tet festival held outside the community's longhouse begins. Prior to dinner, Keaty and Richard spike the stew Unhygienix cooked with a huge amount of cannabis, which combined with fermented coconut milk severely intoxicates most of the residents. Richard and his friends are almost in the clear to slip away when the Thai farmers arrive at the camp. The farmers threaten all of them with guns as they believe that the beach dwellers invited the recent arrivals. The farmers beat up Richard, while leaving the bloodied corpses of the American/German backpackers as a warning. At the sight of the mangled bodies dumped in front of them, most of the residents begin to experience a collective psychotic breakdown and suddenly start to rip the corpses apart in a terrifying frenzy. In her psychotic haze, Sal discovers that Richard has spread the secret of the beach when she picks up the map he drew for Zeph and Sammy, brought by the head Thai farmer. Upon hearing this, a mob of the unstable community members work themselves into a murderous rage by attacking Richard with sharp objects. Richard believes 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, while fatally 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 used their street smarts to return to civilization. It has been a year and one month since their departure from Thailand, and Richard has returned to his home in Britain and hasn't heard from Françoise and Étienne again, but knows he is likely to bump into them eventually because "the world is a small place, and Europe is even smaller". He still keeps in contact with Keaty and Jed. Richard comments that they are able to "deal with [their] shared history". By chance, Keaty and Jed end up working in the same building, although for different companies; similar to how they both happened to stay in the same guest house a few years before they first met at the beach. He also hears in a news report that Cassie has been arrested in Malaysia for smuggling a large amount of heroin and is the first Westerner to be executed in the country in six years. Richard wonders whether other people got off the island, particularly Unhygienix, who he considered to be a decent guy. He believes that Bugs died and hopes that Sal died, too, although not maliciously—rather, because he does not like the idea of her "turning up on his doorstep".
Richard finishes by saying he is content with his life, though he carries a lot of scars: "I like the way that sounds. I carry a lot of scars".
- Richard - a young British 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 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.
- "[Garland is a] natural-born storyteller" who "combines an unlikely group of influences - Heart of Darkness, Vietnam War movies, Lord of the Flies, the Super Mario Bros. video game - into ... ambitious, propulsive fiction." (Washington Post).
- "A Lord of the Flies for Generation X" (Nick Hornby)
- "Generation X's first great novel" (Sunday Oregonian).
- “A furiously intelligent first novel … a book that moves with the kind of speed and grace many older writers can only day-dream about” – Washington Post
Film and television adaptations
- "BBC - The Big Read". BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 31 October 2012
- Porter, Rick (August 7, 2012). "'Secret Circle' creator hits 'The Beach'; Wilmer Valderrama joins 'Raising Hope'". Zap2it. Retrieved August 7, 2012.