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The Beach by Alex Garland

The Beach (1996)

by Alex Garland

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MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,887731,322 (3.76)65
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    usuallee: Another very good novel dealing with a retreat from society and an idealistic quest for utopia.
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    booklove2: The unending search for utopia that falls apart
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    usuallee: Both are great books that have similarities in tone and themes (retreat from society, search for utopia)

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Alex Garland

The Beach

Penguin, Paperback [2016].

8vo. xii+439 pp. 20th Anniversary Edition. Introduction by John Niven [vii-xii].

First published by Viking, 1996.
First published by Penguin, 1997.
Reissued with a new introduction, 2016.


Introduction by John Niven

Ko Samui
Getting There
Beach Life
The Rice Run
Prisoners of the Sun
In Country
Beaucoup Bad Shit
Game Over


How this novel was improved on the screen I have discussed in my review of The Beach (2000). Here I am dealing only with Mr Garland’s creation.

To begin with, the writing is just what you would expect from a first novel of a twenty-six-year-old novelist: trite, sloppy and chaotic, with rather pathetic attempts at originality and humour. Evocative it is not, the characters are but a bunch of ciphers, and the dialogue is on a high-school level (if that). I understand both the first-person narrator and the other characters have not finished high school many years ago (assuming they ever started it), and their intrepid globetrotting does not seem to have brought them either knowledge or insight, but I still think these are poor excuses for boring characters. Just about the only places when the writing comes alive are our narrator’s occasional tributes to travelling:

Strangely, the thing that least intrigued me was how they’d actually managed to get it all done. I suppose I sort of knew. If I’d learned one thing from travelling, it was that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don’t talk about going to Borneo. Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens.

On that trip I learned something very important. 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. Broken armrests took precedence over broken hearts. By the time the plane was airborne I’d forgotten England even existed.

Still, the style is readable and the story moves along; and I will grant Mr Garland that his idea to split each chapter to many short subchapters is a stroke of genius that makes his book look shorter than its 440 pages. So let’s ignore the indifferent writing. What else is there?

There is a very good story for one thing, smartly conceived, nicely developed and rather thought-provoking. The idea of trying to regain the Eden that our ancestors lost ever since the Serpent seduced them (or so the “Good” Book says) is hardly original, but that doesn’t make it less relevant, especially today when our lives become more and more artificial and unspoiled nature more and more impossible to find. Mr Garland does well to avoid suffocating his plot under the weight of philosophical speculation, as Aldous Huxley did in Island (1962), but he goes too far to the other extreme. So his novel ends up as little more than a travel book – except for the ending, which is a cheap, gratuitously gory and quite unconvincing horror.

It is no spoiler to reveal that the Beach is not a lasting success. No utopia ever is. The reasons for the fall of this one are devastatingly simple. One is the relentless pressure of the World, the vague madness Out There that might not exist at all – except on a “Rice Run”. Seriously, how long can you hide a self-subsisting community of about thirty people even under the most favourable conditions, say, a marine park in South East Asia which nobody is supposed to visit? The other reason, and the more important one, is internal. Sooner or later, personal tensions develop, personalities clash, the burden of leadership proves too much for some people, the burden of being led too much for others. One is tempted to exclaim that had these kids been just a little older and just a little wiser, or simply just a little smarter, things would have turned all right in the end. But I don’t believe this. Pick emotionally mature people as close to rational as possible and their Beach won’t last much longer. As likely as not, the reasons of the downfall would look just as petty and the final crash just as appalling, if less bloody.

It was a mistake to write this book in the first person singular. This is a tour de force hardly to be expected in a young and inexperienced writer. By no means would a third-person narrative have solved all problems, but I’m sure it would have concealed better the greenhorn nature of the author. Then again, if you have some special interest in war movies, video games or wacky dreams, perhaps you will find Richard, our narrator, an interesting fellow. I find him rather dull. He is too much a product of the pop culture of the 1980s for my taste. And since it is Richard who has to bring to life the other characters, I find them boring too. There is potential in Jed, Keaty, Bugs, Daffy and Sal, the key players on the Beach, but they remain little more than shadows. Same deal with the French couple, Étienne and Françoise, without whom the whole adventure never would have happened. After the beginning they gradually fade away into non-existence.

In short, this is not the type of book, as far as I’m concerned, that makes you live with the characters, and that makes them stay with you long after the last page. It’s fascinating to observe the drama from the stalls, or even occasionally from the boxes, but it’s so much more compelling to be on the stage yourself. Mr Garland never really let me go there.

The Decline and Fall of the Beach is the main story, but it’s not the only one. There is also Richard’s personal odyssey, or his “ride into the heart of darkness” as the Sunday Times, always eloquent, put it. That’s another reason why the first-person narrative was the wrong choice. Richard is neither the most self-reflective nor the most articulate fellow out there. He does descend into the “heart of darkness”, starting with the “amnesiac effect” of the Beach, which is innocent enough, and ending with a complete inability to tell reality from fantasy, which is a pathological and potentially deadly condition. But all this is suggested rather than shown, let alone described. You have to guess it from sporadic glimpses into Richard’s rather childish mind. Like just about anything else in this novel, the narrator’s madness is developed in a far more effective way on the screen.

I am glad I have read The Beach. It satisfied my curiosity about the foundations of the movie and it didn’t take much time or effort. But it felt from start to finish like a missed opportunity. I couldn’t help wondering what a really great writer could have done with this story and this set of shadows. And yet, the book has survived long enough for a 20th Anniversary Edition (adorned with a tedious introduction by John Niven). I am curious if it would also see a 40th Anniversary Edition ( )
  Waldstein | Jan 19, 2017 |
A cross-over between Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness set on a drug island in Thailand, with a bunch of backpackers trying to create heaven on the beach, but ending in ruins and horror. Must be an absolute number one bestseller among backpackers. Written very much from a perspective that is very familiar for people my age – the songs (REM), the Vietnam war imagery (from Tour of Duty) and the kind of fun (first Gameboy; soccer on the beach) we had in the 1990s, backpacking through Asia.

(SPOILERS AHEAD!!) In short the story is about a British guy, Richard, who shortly after arriving in Bangkok has an exchange with a guy smoking pot, found dead in the morning, leaving a map with an island crossed-out. Jointly with a French couple, he sets off travelling to the island, neatly escaping some Thai drug lords, growing cannabis on the island, with a jump from a steep cliff as the only way out, landing them in a secluded beach community or the Thai version of paradise on earth, led by Sal, a woman who seems to lead against her own will. All goes well. Everyone forgets about ‘the world’ out there, all perform a chorus (gardening, or fishing, or cooking, or carpentry) and besides the occasional rice run with a hidden long boat there is no contact with the outside. But slowly Richard’s consciousness corrodes. He has made a mistake – leaving a copy of the map with some pot-smoking American friends. And that proves their undoing… Besides two classical incidents that split the community in two. The three Swedes get unfortunate, with a shark attack killing one outright, fatally hurting another and turning the final one mad. A second incident concerns an incidentally caused case of mass food poisoning, which causes subliminal tensions to break to the surface. Meanwhile Richard is haunted by the dead man (Duck) and the two Americans and three Germans who are brooding on ways to get to the island from the neighbouring island. Together with Jed, Richard has to protect the community from discovery (and doing the occasional dope run). Sal is trying to ‘manage’ all threats by using Richard, covering up for him and blackmailing him into another desperate action to keep the place from being discovered. Richard sees the five outsiders approach and does nothing when they get caught by the Thai kill squad, who actually slaughter the unwanted newcomers. When next Sal nudges him into solving the problem of the mad Swede, Rich has reached the bottom of his own corruption. He no longer wants to participate in Sal’s mad schemes to keep the utopia afloat and tries to orchestrate the escape of all he cares about – Francoise and Etienne, Jed and the game boy. They mastermind a collective blackout by stuffing the food with dope. Jed however, wakes with the second (dying) Swede in a tent and does not want to come unless the Swede is dead. Richard lends a hand at the night, by strangling the Swede. When all seems ready, the party indeed degenerating into one collective drunken, stoned trip, the group gets surrounded by Thai guards with AK47’s. The captain shows the map that guided the American-German party – Richard thinks they will all die now. But no, they are spared except for Richard himself who gets beaten up and next carved up by his own, when the crowd discovers the mutilated bodies of the American-German party and spins into collective madness by cutting limbs of the corpses and taking out the intestines. They direct their collective anger at Richard, the drawer of the map. They start stabbing him, but then Jed rises to the occasion – protects his friend and the five escape on the raft that brought the unfortunate newcomers. Everyone gets home, end of story. Duck made one final appearance, exclaiming ‘the horror, the horror’, in a clear reference to Dr Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

Well written, pacy, with Richard in the first person, and short scenes written in movie-type descriptions. Deserves to be a modern day classic in the backpackers scene. ( )
  alexbolding | Oct 16, 2016 |

read it 15 year ago
Loved the book and the movie. It made me want to go to Thailand and it shows both extremes. I'll never forget when he came across the couple lying on the ground with the mosquitos. I'll always remeber that. ( )
  Gary_Power | Jul 10, 2016 |
I think I might have enjoyed this more if I'd read it when I was younger or something. I mean, the story is fine but it's a bit obvious from the start where it's all going, it's probably about 100 pages too long, he mentions smoking weed far more than is strictly necessary, and also all the stuff with "Daffy" is absolutely ridiculous. It was a quick, fun, read, but I didn't care about it in the slightest and will probably never think about it again. ( )
  hoegbottom | Jan 30, 2016 |
I think I might have enjoyed this more if I'd read it when I was younger or something. I mean, the story is fine but it's a bit obvious from the start where it's all going, it's probably about 100 pages too long, he mentions smoking weed far more than is strictly necessary, and also all the stuff with "Daffy" is absolutely ridiculous. It was a quick, fun, read, but I didn't care about it in the slightest and will probably never think about it again. ( )
  hoegbottom | Jan 30, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alex Garlandprimary authorall editionscalculated
Goddijn, AnnekeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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For Suzy, Theo, Leo, Laura, and my parents
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The first I heard of the beach was in Bangkok, on the Khao San Road.
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Wenn es nur eine Kamera gäbe, die Gerüche einfangen kann. Gerüche sind etwas viel Lebendigeres als Bilder. Ich bin schon oft an einem heißen Tag durch London gelaufen, habe den Geruch von brütendem Müll oder schmelzendem Asphalt wahrgenommen und mich plötzlich in eine Seitenstraße von Delhi versetzt gefühlt.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140258418, Paperback)

In our ever-shrinking world, where popular Western culture seems to have infected every nation on the planet, it is hard to find even a small niche of unspoiled land--forget searching for pristine islands or continents. This is the situation in Alex Garland's debut novel, The Beach. Human progress has reduced Eden to a secret little beach near Thailand. In the tradition of grand adventure novels, Richard, a rootless traveler rambling around Thailand on his way somewhere else, is given a hand-drawn map by a madman who calls himself Daffy Duck. He and two French travelers set out on a journey to find this paradise.

What makes this a truly satisfying novel is the number of levels on which it operates. On the surface it's a fast-paced adventure novel; at another level it explores why we search for these utopias, be they mysterious lost continents or small island communes. Garland weaves a gripping and thought-provoking narrative that suggests we are, in fact, such products of our Western culture that we cannot help but pollute and ultimately destroy the very sanctuary we seek

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:20 -0400)

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Novel about a backpacker culture in Southeast Asia, influenced by Lord of the Flies.

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