The Beach by Alex Garland (Penguin) Besides a Lonely Planet guide, there can be few books more likely to be found dog-eared in the pockets of world-travelling backpackers than The Beach, a harrowing tale set on the southeast Asian tourist trail. Even 14 years after it was first published, and helped by a Hollywood adaptation, Alex Garland's debut novel remains the beach bum's tome of choice and the lazy media's reference point for any tragedy or scandal that befalls foreign travellers in tropical climes. The novel, written by Garland when he was just 26 years old, won immediate and continued critical praise for its energetic and breezy narrative style as well as its subject matter of society set adrift, which struck a chord in a world nervously poised on the cusp of the technology revolution. Set in Thailand in the late 1990s, The Beach is a furious-paced tale of a group of dissolute Westerners trying to escape various crises back home. In their search for the tourist's Holy Grail - the beach untouched by the modern world - they are drawn to an idyllic paradise isolated from the general traveller hubs and on which a community of similarly disillusioned itinerants have established their idea of a Utopian society. Eventually, as more and more new arrivals upset the delicate balance within the community, dangerous rifts open in its veneer of unanimity leading, inevitably, to conflict, violence and murder. Garland wrote The Beach in a fit of panic after finishing university and having no job to go to. As a result, the story's nervous, chain-smoking lead character Richard is a thinly veiled characterisation of the writer, embodying Garland's fear of the future and search for sanctuary. The novel's themes will be familiar to anyone who has spent much time on the backpacking trail: loneliness and the need for kinship away from filial ties; a yearning to escape from society; a search for freedom and, eventually, the crushing realisation that it's a search that will always end in failure. But it goes further than that, tapping into issues that trouble travellers and non-travellers alike - chief among them the loss of Eden, that absence of wonder and magic that comes with knowing the world has been conquered and where no untouched corner remains. The Beach's success was most notable in Garland's British homeland at a time when rising prosperity gave rise to 'gap year' travels among youngsters keen to see more of the world between finishing school and beginning college or entering the workforce. Unfortunately for many backpackers, the book has become closely associated with an element in the travelling community that took its ancillary themes of drug use and dropping out of society as a design for life.