The Beach is one of my favourite novels and is much better than the film version of the book.
The book is narrated in the first person by Richard, a British backpacker who is travelling in Thailand.
During his travels, he discovers a map which leads to a beach where a group of fellow travellers live in a self-supporting community.
As someone that has travelled extensively for several years, this book resonated with me. While I wouldn’t want to live in such a community, no matter how idyllic it may seem, I can see the attraction.
The writer, Alex Garland, is said to have based his beach on the Philippine beach resort of El Nido. I visited El Nido a few years ago and I can see how he came up with the book and the attraction of the idea.
El Nido feels removed from the rest of civilisation in the Philippines. It’s a five-hour drive from Puerto Princesa the capital of the island of Palawan to reach there.
It feels like you are venturing to a lost frontier. When you get there, El Nido is a beautiful and secluded place. So much so, that when I visited, there were no ATMs for people with non-Filipino bank cards!
It’s an interesting novel that looks at a variety of themes. The disillusionment of many with reality and a longing for paradise. The book also that paradise may not be what it seems and that you can never truly escape your problem by moving somewhere else.
Unless you deal with them, they will accompany you wherever you go. I can’t recommend this novel enough. It’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking read that should be read by anyone who has been travelling or is looking to go on a backpacking adventure!
The Beach summary
Takeaway 1 Paradise is not as good as you may think
Paradise is a relative concept. What may be considered a paradise for one person could be considered another’s hell.
However, for backpackers, and certainly Richard, paradise is a community by the beach where you can swim, surf and smoke marijuana without little distractions.
For people who are disillusioned with modern life, retreating to a beach and living a life such as this is the dream.
Despite the beach appearing to be a paradise from the outside, once you’re in the community things are different.
You are confined to one part of the island as there are armed drug dealers on the other side of the island. While new members of the community can be vetoed by those already are. Plus, there are several menial jobs to do.
In reality, the situation is not so much paradise as a small scale version of life confined to a beach. Despite the location, the same problem remains.
People fight, they bicker, there are problems and there are moments of boredom. The only difference is that you are living in an idyllic location.
We all have wishes and dreams. We imagine what they may look like and how things would turn out. The problem is that our expectations are often very different from reality.
Richard’s dream of living on a tropical island did not match the reality and it is the same in most walks of life. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been underwhelmed by a destination after desiring to visit for a long time.
Sometimes, you should be careful what you wish for and accept that paradise isn’t always better than reality and what you have now.
Takeaway 2 Utopia is fragile
In his brilliant book, Utopia For Realists, Rutger Bregman details how the idea of a utopia often fails in practice.
If we become determined to reach one form of utopia instead of acknowledging that reaching utopia should be a process, then the plan is doomed to fail.
Something similar happens on the beach.
When Richard discovers the community he believes it to be a utopia. Everyone has tasks that they carry out and they live in relative harmony.
However, things soon turn for the worse and the community begins to fragment. This hints that despite looking like it was a stable community it was anything but.
The community is fragile for several reasons, the need to keep the community small to appease the armed dealers on the other side of the island and to reduce tensions within the group.
Building a perfect community is almost always impossible because we live in an imperfect world. However, you can get close if you recognise this.
As there are around 20 people on the island and they each have differing views of what the community should be like, it’s hard to reconcile this with the group. Then you have the fact that Richard found the island via a map handed to him by one of the founders, Daffy, who committed suicide afterwards.
If the community was a utopia, why did he leave and commit suicide? Societies are unwieldy and hard to manage. The dire to break off from mainstream society ad start afresh is tempting, but the same problems will always arise.
We should aim to improve the world as much as we can, but we should also recognise that reaching utopia should be an evolving process, one we may never come to the end of.
Takeaway 3 It’s ok to be bored
Modern life has tended to treat boredom as a sin. Something that is to be avoided at all cost. In The Beach, Richard falls prey to this way of thinking.
His discontent with life in England is what leads him to Thailand in the first place and then his curiosity at discovering the map for a hidden commune on the island lead him there.
Thinking that he will find paradise and be happy in this community he sets out with positivity to reach the beach.
However, after a while, he begins to get bored. Life on the beach is not so different from life in England. It’s not an existence where you can just do what you want all day every day.
The community needs food to eat, it needs water to drink and it needs to keep a watch out for the armed farmers on the other side of the island.
Routine seeps into Richard’s life and he becomes bored by it. He becomes so bored that he wishes for things to go wrong so that it brings some variety to his life.
This is a problem we all have today. Instead of cooperating with boredom, we try to push it away and find something to do, but this only leads us to become more discontent.
Accepting boredom as a part of life is essential if you’re to be content. If you’re restless and unable to live with boredom then you’re going to have a difficult life.
Out of boredom can come some profound realisations. Einstein thought up his theory of relativity while working in a mind-numbing job in a patent office. From boredom great things can come, but only if we accept them as an intrinsic part of our existence.
- “When you develop an infatuation for someone you always find a reason to believe that this is exactly the person for you. It doesn’t need to be a good reason. Taking photographs of the night sky, for example. Now, in the long run, that’s just the kind of dumb, irritating habit that would cause you to split up. But in the haze of infatuation, it’s just what you’ve been searching for all these years.”
- “If I’d learnt 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.”
- “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.”
- “I don’t like dealing with money transactions in poor countries. I get confused between the feeling that I shouldn’t haggle with poverty and getting ripped off”
- “Trust me, it’s paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is the generation that travels the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite & never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience— And if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it.”
The Beach review
This The Beach summary has looked at one of the most popular novels of recent times. Garland’s novel is a brilliant book that keeps you hooked and makes you think.
I read this while I was backpacking which made the images it generated all the more visceral.
The novel raises some important philosophical questions that are important to consider. One is that we can run from our problems, but we often bring them with us.
Another is that no matter how much you think the grass may be greener on the other side, sometimes it isn’t.
I’m sure many of us have fantasised about retiring to an island paradise and living an idyllic life. This may seem like a good idea in our imagination, but as The Beach demonstrates, the reality might not match up to our expectations.
Who should read The Beach?
Anyone that is travelling long term or has done so in the past should read this book. It’s an enlightening look at backpacking and what it entails.
This book will appeal to the young generation and those who grew up in the 80s and 90s. It may also appeal to free-spirited people.
If you enjoy a good novel, and one that keeps you hooked, The Beach is a book you’ll love!