I first read this book about 10 years ago and I've read it at least 10 times since then. As a simple adventure story, it doesn't lose its punch, even upon rereading. Richard, a young English traveller, is given a map in Bangkok by a man named Daffy Duck, who promptly commits suicide. The map leads Richard to a secret beach, where a commune of travellers live in apparent paradise. Unfortunately, this tiny microcosm of existence, while idyllic, is also prone to disasters – from the banal, like a bout of food poisoning, to the catastrophic, like drug farmers bearing arms.
However, the true delights of this novel come from its numerous layers. It's a profoundly intelligent book, which can be read in many different ways, emphasising many different aspects. There's barely a wasted scene, and each one opens up more possibilities for literary analysis. That it is also an effortless read is a testament to Alex Garland's abilities as a writer.
With allegorical finesse, Garland addresses globalism, communism, war, matriarchy and masculinity, what it means to be a Brit who grew up on a diet of American movies, magic realism, madness and much more. Yet the novel never feels weighty – you can choose to ignore any or all of these allegories and allusions if you like. On this particular reading, I began thinking about the idea that the beach could be a drug-induced hallucination, since Richard mistakes Daffy for a heroin addict initially, only later learning that it's the beach he's addicted to. Richard is also a fascinating unreliable narrator; his lack of reliability doubling due to the fact that Garland never demands that you like him very much as a person.
That I do, in fact, like him shows the nuance of Garland's writing. Despite the fact that it's a first novel, Garland shows a grasp of plotting and continuity of a much more mature author. Everything ties together neatly, and even minor characters possess warmth and depth. While Garland clearly draws on knowledge accrued while he was travelling himself, there's no show-off quality about it: he merely drops in hints of exoticism that not only enhance the novel's scenery but also forward the plot.
The Beach is truly a rare pleasure: a fun read that's also profoundly literary.