In his debut novel, a writer born in Thailand and now living in New York creates a portrait of Bangkok that sweeps across a century and a teeming cast of characters yet shines with exquisite detail.
In its early chapters, the book reads like a collection of short stories linked only by their relationship to Bangkok: A nameless woman walks through its bustling streets in the present; an American doctor more than 100 years ago struggles to decipher its overwhelmingly foreign culture; a Thai photographer living in Los Angeles in the 1970s visits his ailing father in London; a woman running a Thai restaurant in Japan finds herself threatened by Thailand’s politics. But as those seemingly unconnected stories accumulate, so do the threads that join them. Many are stories of loss and of survival. In one, a young Thai man named Siripohng, who has come to the city to attend university, meets a woman named Nee during the massive student demonstrations in 1973. Sudbanthad draws a subtle but achingly lovely account of their courtship, born of the hopeful spirit of the protests—then pivots to a shocking conclusion. In another, an American jazz musician called Crazy Legs Clyde is summoned to a woman’s estate to play piano because a medium, she tells him, “counts twenty or so spirits in the pillar. They visit me in my dreams, and I’m tired of it. A woman my age needs her sound sleep.” But the assignment to exorcise them raises a ghost from Clyde’s past that won’t be stilled. Ghosts haunt this novel, even the ghosts of buildings, like the ancient tile-roofed house preserved within the lobby of a gleaming new skyscraper where some of the book’s characters will live (and at least one will die). As one character muses near the end of the novel, “The forgotten return again and again, as new names and faces, and again this city makes new ghosts.” Yet in Sudbanthad’s skillful hands and lyrical prose, every one of them seems vividly alive.
This breathtakingly lovely novel is an accomplished debut, beautifully crafted and rich with history rendered in the most human terms.