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Paradise or Inferno?
The Beach - Alex Garland
Member Name: TeeCee
The Beach - Alex Garland
Date: 21/05/01, updated on 21/05/01 (178 review reads)
Advantages: Great story, Good characterisation
Disadvantages: Slow starter
I managed to miss the film version of "The Beach". It just didn't appeal. I also avoided the book for ages until a friend persuaded me to give it a go. Having done so I think I was right to miss the film. The Beach is a complex book and from all reports the film failed to do it justice.
The basic concept behind the story is a simple one: somewhere in the vicinity of Thailand is a classic desert island on which lies a beach that is paradise on earth. Only a select few know about this beach and they live there free of worry. It's the stuff of legend - in this tale, it also happens to be true. Almost.
The viewpoint character is Richard, a British backpacker exploring Thailand. The story proper begins when he meets Mister Duck in a local hotel. The latter dies and leaves a map pinned to Richard's door - a map to the Beach. Along with a couple of newly met friends Richard sets out to find it.
With the help of Mister Duck's map, they arrive at The Beach. At first it seems to be the promised paradise; a self-sufficient commune of young people living in a beautiful setting with dope growing all around. Yet as time goes on strains emerge - people are, as always, a problem. In addition, the youngsters are not the only people on the island and their neighbours are not friendly.
Things start to go very, very wrong. Throughout all this Richard is losing his grip on reality, having discussions with the ghost of Mister Duck and descending into Vietnam fantasies. Beaucoup bad s...stuff.
The book is written in the first person, which is integral to the story and one of the reasons that the film was probably doomed to failure. First person narrative always makes me suspect an unreliable narrator, and this book is no exception. As the story progresses we realise that Richard is not quite the cool, experienced traveller he believes himself to be. Instead he is an arrogant, immature fool. He is unable to distinguish
between fantasy and reality and has dangerously romantic daydreams about the Vietnam war. He also has unjustified romantic fantasies, which cause much friction.
The Beach is very well written and highly absorbing, with well-drawn characters and superb atmosphere that drag you from beautiful dream to dark nightmare. It's a compelling read.
Which is my one complaint. The first hundred pages are quite simply tedious. It appears to be merely a dull travelogue interspersed with a few philosophical musings. Had I not been given such strong recommendations I'd probably have given up before it started getting interesting. This book really needs about fifty pages pruning near the start. Even then it would be slow until around half way through.
So, an oddly unbalanced book. At the beginning I was wondering why I was wasting my time; by three-quarters of the way through I was regretting that it had to come to an end.
Persevere. You're in for a hard slog at first, but it's worth it.