I would probably never have read #103 The Beach by Alex Garland if it wasn’t for the Big Read list and that would have been a shame as I really enjoyed it.
The Beach is a fictional travel memoir, describing the physical and spiritual journey of Richard, one of the many Western tourists clogging up Thailand’s beaches. Determined to find something real and unspoiled, he travels further off the beaten path than he ever intended.
Shark in the water
As a writer, you’re supposed to front-load your work with a hook, something which will draw your reader in and keep them interested long enough to pay for the book. The Beach is like a deep-sea angler fish – the shining lure has little in common with the teeth that follow, and yet is part of the same creature.
I’ll try not to spoil this book, but I find it hard to review it fairly without discussing some of the things which come after the first shift. At least one friend was put off reading The Beach because the opening struck him as pretentious crap, and I can entirely understand this point of view. However, I think that’s deliberate and it changes rapidly.
I will say that this is not a fluffy or friendly book. The cover of the Kindle edition is garish and has a skull in the centre, which seems a reasonable representation, but other editions seem to just have a beach, and look more like a holiday romance. This is not the sort of book that guarantees a happy ending.
Tourist or traveller?
The Beach opens with Richard having a series of unsettling encounters in a hostel in Thailand and from the very first page it’s addressing what it means to travel, to be ‘a traveller’ or ‘a tourist’ and whether there’s any difference at all. The travellers think there’s a big difference – really travelling means looking for something authentic, spiritual even, something fresh, new and unspoiled while tourists just see the sights.
And yet, as a reader, you’re probably already questioning this definition listening to the characters talk. They’ve seen all these places, and they’ve gone just to look and say they did. Where’s the difference between a package holiday to Paris and three months exploring Thai beaches? What have they learned? Who have they helped? What have they changed?
The quest for something fresh and unspoiled, a land without other footprints, drives the characters in the story and it’s a uncomfortable quest. The travellers move through Thailand with little regard for the Thai people, either individually or collectively. This is an old-fashioned narrative of discovery – we found it, and look! there are all these people living here already.
The Beach is a clever book – it manages to be the thing and more than the thing. It’s a story about a beach, about a trip, and it’s also a dissection of travelling, of all the beaches and all the trips. It’s decidedly thought provoking and I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in travel.