From Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing to Ernest Hemingway's Fiesta, there are plenty of great beach scenes in literature to keep our sun-and-sand pangs at bay. Michelle Pereira/Penguin

There are plenty of great beach scenes in literature to keep our sun-and-sand pangs at bay. Michelle Pereira for Penguin

Is there anything more blissful than immersing yourself in a great book on a beach, the sun on your face, the sand in your toes, the mingling smells of suncream and sea salt filling your nose?

Even if we can't get there, we can still read about seeing the seaside in books. Because there are plenty of great beach scenes in literature to keep our sun-and-sand pangs at bay.

So, whether written by Alex Garland or Yaa Gyasi, here are six of our favourite beach scenes in literature.

The Beach by Alex Garland (1996)

A shoe-in, maybe, given the title, but this whole story is an ode to the beauty of beaches, really, as well as a bitter critique of mass tourism and human selfishness.

Now a cult classic, it follows Richard, an English backpacker who comes across a map to a hidden beach paradise off the coast of Thailand. Upon tracking it down, he finds a small, self-sufficient community of travellers who've swapped real-world responsibility for palm trees, cannabis and coconuts. At first it seems like Eden... until it turns into Hell.

But before everything goes papaya-shaped, there is one typically evocative scene that perfectly embodies backpacker beach life and carefree youth, where the characters sit – stoned of course – before a spectacular Thai sunset:

“Red sky faded to deep blue, where a few bright stars already shone, and orange light threw elastic shadows down the beach... I was stoned. I'd been dozing on the sand with Françoise and Etienne, recovering from our epic swim, when Zammy and Zeph turned up with half an ounce of grass wrapped in a newspaper.”

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

This meticulous panorama of the inherited trauma of slavery ends poignantly on a beach. Marcus, descended from slaves, and Marjorie, a descendant of slave traders, find themselves in Cape Coast Castle (the former slave hold where the story begins with their ancestors 300 years earlier) in Ghana.

When Marcus comes across the Door of No Return, he panics and runs onto the beach. But Marjorie calms him by coaxing him into the water, despite his fear of beaches.

“He closed his eyes and walked until the water met his calves, and then he held his breath, started to run. Run underwater. Soon, waves crashed over his head and all around him. Water moved into his nose and stung his eyes. When he finally lifted his head up from the sea to cough, then breathe, he looked out at the water before him, at the vast expanse of time and space. He could hear Marjorie laughing, and soon, he laughed too.”

It's a remarkable reminder that beaches aren't just places where the land ends, but portals to new beginnings and painful histories, too. Here, on the sands outside Cape Coast Castle, Marcus and Marjorie attempt to amend wrongs that have entwined their families for generations.

 

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)

The beach features heavily in Kate Chopin’s great feminist novel of identity and self-revelation, specifically the white sands of Grand Isle in Louisiana, a popular destination for wealthy Creole and French-descent families of the time.

But its most evocative beach moment comes not under a blazing sun but under “the mystic moon”, when heroine Edna wanders with a group of friends and family to the beach after a raucous late-night party.

But few authors have conjured the peaceful serenity of the beach in twilight better – for Edna, the beach is a place for solitude, the one thing that will help her take control of her own body and mind: “The night sat lightly upon the sea and the land. There was no weight of darkness; there were no shadows. The white light of the moon had fallen upon the world like the mystery and the softness of sleep … [The sea] swelled lazily in broad billows that melted into one another and did not break except upon the beach in little foamy crests that coiled back like slow, white serpents.”

Ultimately, the sea is where Edna meets her tragic end. But before that, it is also where she finds her true self when, in a moment of impulsive abandon, she leaves the others singing and frolicking in the shallows to wade alone into the water: “She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” 

Fiesta by Ernest Hemingway (1926)

Given his lifelong love of deep-sea fishing, Ernest Hemingway was no stranger to the sensation of sand between his toes.

And nowhere in his oeuvre is the lazy, peaceful joy of hanging out at the beach on your own, especially after a heavy night, better captured than towards the end of Fiesta, a semi-autobiographical novel about a group of fun-loving expats who travel from Paris to Pamplona to watch the bull run in the 1920s.

“After lunch I went up to my room, read a while, and went to sleep. When I woke it was half past four. I found my swimming-suit, wrapped it with a comb in a towel, and went down-stairs and walked up the street to the Concha. The tide was about half-way out. The beach was smooth and firm, and the sand yellow ... Although the tide was going out, there were a few slow rollers. They came in like undulations in the water, gathered weight of water, and then broke smoothly on the warm sand. I waded out. The water was cold. As a roller came I dove, swam out under water, and came to the surface with all the chill gone.”

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978)

This is the novel that won Iris Murdoch her first and only Booker Prize (she was nominated for four), in 1978. There's plenty of beach action throughout. Only, the beach in this moody psychodrama about vanity and self-delusion isn't so much the powdered-sand and sun-lounger beach of your dreams; more the gnarled rope and driftwood type. In other words, reassuringly British.

It follows Charles Arrowby, who's turned his back on a glittering career on the London theatre scene to live a life of windswept isolation on the coast, to write his memoir. So he buys a rickety cottage on a rocky coastline, eats hideous food, walks along stony beaches and reflects on his life.

Trouble is, everyone hates him, including the sea, which plays a major role in the book, and is always beautifully described (“The sea is golden, speckled with white points of light, lapping with a sort of mechanical self-satisfaction under a pale green sky. How huge it is, how empty.”)

“I swam at the beach but it was not a success,” he tells the reader in one typically gloomy beach scene. “The pebbles hurt my feet and I had great difficulty in getting out, since the beach shelves and the waves kept tumbling the pebbles down against me. I came back really cold and disgruntled, and forgot the wood which I had collected.”

Anyone who's been on a winter beach holiday on the British coast should be able to relate.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (2007)

Chesil Beach in Dorset is a stoney stretch of coastline and a beautiful lovers' retreat. Only, when Edward and Florence, 22 and 23, arrive for their honeymoon, its "infinite shingle" sets the stage for the newlyweds' painful loss of innocence.

In one scene, as Edward looks back on the fateful holiday, the beach becomes a symbol for missed opportunity. “On Chesil Beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice, would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back.”

A moving tale of sexual discovery in young marriage, the fragility of young love and ultimately, about the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood, On Chesil Beach is a post-nuptial psychodrama that lingers like a sad song, made flesh by McEwan's heart-punching prose, and pebbled by evocative beach scenes.

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