I very rarely copy the summary from the back of a book, but this one is simply perfect and I can think of no way to better it:
The Khao San Road, Bangkok - first stop on the backpacker trail. On Richard's first night there a fellow traveller slits his wrists, leaving Richard a map to 'The Beach'. The Beach is a legend among young travellers in Asia; white sands circling a lagoon hidden from the sea, coral gardens and freshwater falls surrounded by jungle. In this earthly paradise, it is rumoured, a select community lives in blissful ignorance. For Richard, haunted by the glamour of Vietnam war movies, a trek into unknown Thai territory is irresistible. He was looking for an adventure. Now he's found it.
Reading older books from my shelves has completely influenced my reading habits; now I'm starting to pick up books that weren't even on my planned TBR list, and long may it continue! I remember the film of The Beach coming out back in 2000, but was too young to see it, and have had vague plans of reading the book ever since. And I'm glad that I finally picked it up. The Beach is a genuinely thrilling, page-turner of a book that kept me up past my bedtime several nights in a row.
The great thing about The Beach is that it is a slow burn kind of book. Things start off very dramatically with the suicide of a traveller in Bangkok but then slow down again as Richard attempts to find and then live on The Beach. The whole time, there is a sense that something isn't quite right, a sense of foreboding, and this gradually builds and builds until you're simply desperate to find out what happens at the end. I was worried the ending would be disappointing given all of the build up, but it was actually more gripping than I thought it would be. I've since watched the film too, and the film ending is just awful compared to the book, such a cop out.
The Beach is really about what happens when a group of people isolate themselves completely from the outside world. Moral codes start to slip and patterns of dominance start to emerge. As Richard lives on The Beach, his sense of belonging and identity with the world as a whole slowly starts to fade and his whole personality becomes based on his new group identity. And if things are accepted by the group, who are you to challenge them? I thought Garland portrayed this change in Richard very subtly and effectively, up to the point where he couldn't recognise himself any more.
The only minor issue I had with The Beach was that it was pretty pretentious at times. There was all this stuff about travelling only being important if it is 'off the beaten track' and away from other tourists, always looking for the next unspoiled destination. Richard and his friends look down their noses at everyone constantly. I know that Garland is only portraying people who do feel like this, but it did get irritating at times.
Still, I would recommend The Beach if you're after a page-turner or thriller, or curious about what happens to humanity when it's left completely to it's own devices. I couldn't put it down.
Source: Personal copy
Score: 4 out of 5