Spellbinding and hallucinogenic, The Beach by Alex Garland — both a national bestseller and his debut – is a highly accomplished and suspenseful novel that fixates on a generation in their twenties, who, burdened with the legacy of the preceding generation and saturated by popular culture, long for an unruined landscape, but find it difficult to experience the world firsthand.
The Beach is riveting storytelling. A page-turner. I happened upon this book at a mini library outside a police station and it called to me.
Debuting in 1996, Alex Garland‘s novel took the world by storm, becoming a bestseller that was adapted into a movie. Garland went on to write screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine, later transitioning into directing his own scripts.
Here are three lessons I learned from reading The Beach:
- Be authentic and vulnerable.
- How to make an adventure feel epic yet intimate.
- How to craft a firecracker finale.
#1. BE AUTHENTIC AND VULNERABLE —
The first thing I noticed about The Beach was Garland’s innate sense of honesty. The narrator, Richard, discussed complex emotions and thoughts that might embarrass other storytellers. It reminded me of a quote:
I agree with this. Throughout The Beach, Richard was thoughtful and endearing. A sensitive soul. But there were also moments where he seemed cold and heartless. Like when he found Daffy’s blood soaked body, wrists slit, and didn’t seem to feel anything. Yet even when the narration seemed cold, I felt an innate sense of understanding. I felt empathy inside of me expanding. Such is the power of great storytelling.
Psychology tells us that if someone is lying, they often embellish and add detail to make the lie more convincing. Typically, when an individual is telling the truth, they don’t feel the need to fill in every blank. They are willing to leave some “I don’t know” moments because that is how they recall the experience. Garland did this very well here. At numerous times in the book, Richard’s narration said that he didn’t remember what happened at certain times. Whether it was a comedown from an adrenaline rush or a menial conversation, he made it known and pontificated upon why the lapse in memory might exist. Those moments of inner monologue helped convince the reader of the story’s reality. Fantastic work.
Richard interacted with a lot of people over the course of the book and we got a sense of the characters, though Richard admitted at certain points that he didn’t know certain people well. I liked how he phrased this, telling the reader that when one thinks back on their time in school, the classmates remembered last are like those characters.
#2. HOW TO MAKE AN ADVENTURE FEEL EPIC YET INTIMATE —
It astounds me when storytellers tell an epic story that feels intensely intimate. When done right, it strikes a certain chord in my heart. Garland accomplished that here. Telling the story from first-person was a wise choice as we are privileged to the protagonist’s lingering thoughts about what transpired. At certain points in the novel, he even hinted at things to come, which was a nice touch. Sure-handed is an apt way to describe the writing in The Beach.
So how did he achieve this? The love triangle helped. A jaded traveler attracted to another man’s girlfriend who bread crumbed him over months without anything sexual coming from the connection. That tension remained throughout the novel and we, as the audience, wanted him to be happy. We wanted him to succeed. A little bit of love, attraction, and tension go a long way.
How else did Garland make the story feel both big and small? The various locations including giant trees, underwater caves, and white sand beaches added to the breathtaking scenery planted in our imaginations, making it all feel larger than life. Yet the protagonist’s desire was fairly simple: Richard wanted to be free. To live outside of societal boundaries. One moment that springs to mind was when one member of the group was attacked by a shark. We saw this through Richard’s eyes, only seeing the aftermath. The way he described the individuals returning to camp was horrifying and vivid. It was these kinds of details as well as a sense of perspective woven into a suspenseful narrative that made the book feel both epic and intimate.
#3. HOW TO CRAFT A FIRECRACKER FINALE —
The ending of The Beach left me breathless. With callbacks to characters previously established, tragedies at every turn, grotesque violence, and choices from early in the novel coming back to endanger our protagonist’s life, it was a spellbinding whirlwind. In some ways, I was so enraptured in the writing that I didn’t want it to end but I also felt horrified by what was happening and wanted peace. That tension had me turning the pages through the night until I finished the novel.
So how did Alex Garland achieve this? I think that he did an excellent job setting up paradise throughout the novel, then slowly chipping away at it with patience and attention to detail. When travelers showed up on an adjacent island, Richard feared that his earlier mistake would be discovered and put everyone at risk. The beach sanctuary came under threat and peaceful characters slowly morphed into territorial monsters. The shark bite amped up the tension further, putting death front and center on everyone’s minds. That, in itself, was enough to get me on the edge of my seat, but then once the travelers crossed the water and were confirmed to be people whom Richard drew a map for earlier, anxiety expanded. Then those fools ran into the dope fields, tearing up plants, and walked up to an armed guard to greet him like a friend…
Richard watched the beating while his imaginary friend told him to help. The gunshots made him believe that the travelers had been killed and I thought that either we wouldn’t see those characters again or that there might be a twist where they somehow escaped but Garland took things in a different direction. The grotesque climax unsettled me in ways I will likely remember for years to come.
Unexpected actions, characters behaving erratically, and despicable violence all culminated into a firecracker finale. The fact that Garland chose to end on a somewhat hopeful note was respectable and made me like him more as an artist. Dark and deeply unnerving…yet somehow hopeful.
Thank you for reading. If you like this post, you may enjoy my other analyses on the WRITER page including 3 Lessons Learned from Reading RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and 3 Lessons Learned from Reading LIFE OF PI.