The Beach-Alex Garland   Leave a comment

‘Lord of the Flies for Generation X’ Nick Hornby

This is a book from the reading list ‘1001 books to read before you die’, which I am attempting to complete. I must admit, I probably would never have considered it otherwise. The greatest strength of this list, is the way I have been challenged to read new genres, often books which were not originally written in English. I have discovered many books this way, some have opened my eyes to other cultures, others- like this one, have stirred my biases and challenged my opinions.

A young Englishman, Richard, travels alone across the world, looking to find entertainment and new experiences. Whilst staying at a hotel in Thailand, he meets a drugged up Scot named ‘Duck’, who breaks into his room late one night to offer him a spliff and make false accusations to him. Duck then returns to his own room and talks loudly and confusedly about a beach. The next morning, Richard discovers this new friend dead, having slashed his own wrists. On returning to his own room, he discovers a map pushed under the door, drawn presumably by Duck, of several local islands, one of which is marked with a beach, Richard guesses it to be the one Duck had spent hours muttering about the night before.

Richard shares the map with his new friends, Etienne and Françoise and together they decide to pursue the challenge and find this paradise beach. After much planning they decide to swim to the island and then travel across it to the place marked on the map. Before leaving Richard warns his fellow tourists in the next hotel room, Sammy and Zeph, leaves them a copy of the map, telling them to come looking for him after a period of time, in case something goes wrong.

Richard, Etienne and Françoise find the beach, and join a group of people who have previously set up camp there as a self-sufficient independent eco group free from modern culture. They subsist largely on home grown vegetables, fish and hashish stolen from neighbouring drug fields. Life appears to be idyllic initially, but it is not long before tensions develop within the group.

The group feels threatened by any visitors, and when Sammy and Zeph are discovered to be searching for them, Richard is sent to investigate and deter them by whatever means necessary.

Following a bout of food poisoning, tempers flare. Then some members of the group are killed and badly injured in a shark attach and the group is divided whether to take the injured to hospital or let them die, in order to keep the secrecy of the beach.

The group leader organises a party to renew relationship and strengthen bonds. But now, Richard has become a trusted lackey of the leader and is aware of the backhanded methods of control that exist in the camp. He gathers his closest friends and plans to escape.

Just before they leave, they have a surprise attack from the local drug lords, angered at the arrival of Sammy and Zeph clumsily searching for Richard and disturbing their drug fields. The drug lords have killed this group of people, but now arrive to deliver an ultimatum to the rest of the group, that breaking the secrecy is unacceptable. Richard is made an example of and rescued by his friends, before they make their escape from the island.

The book ends looking back on the escape and how life has continued for the group since then.

I felt that it is exactly as Nick Hornby describes in the quote at the top of this review. The group initially is a great example of the perfect society, then we see a little closer and see small divisions between characters, and resentments of behaviours of various people. There is an increasing amount of violence during the novel, then toward the end there are the deaths from the shark, then the shootings of Sammy and Zeph and their group and finally the drug lord making an example of Richard and establishing himself firmly as the de facto leader of the group.

The similarity to the Lord of the Flies is stark. There are factions:-the group on the beach, the drug lords, Richard, Etienne and Françoise, and the rescue party of Sammy, Zeph and friends.
The system of organisation gradually falls apart, and the violence increases. An apparent kindly ruler is seen to be a tyrant, and the. There is an overthrow of the main party by another group.
The main difference with Lord of the Flies, is that this is based near the turn of 21st Century, not the 1950s, and the characters are older, all in their twenties, not children. It is an interesting comparison though, as this generation x, with its obsession with Gameboys and hashish highs and childish pranks, is little more mature than the group of children in the original novel.

I can’t say I enjoyed the book, in fact, that type of lifestyle is far from my experience, but I recognise it and was happy to observe it and realise the comments the author was attempting to make. It is a sad indictment the generation, but valid and a warning for the next generation, which can only get worse. It is worth noting, that since the 1950s we have not improved, in fact we seem more immature than ever.


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