"Bangkok Wakes to Rain" by Pitchaya Sudbanthad; Riverhead Books (360 pages, $27)
Sometimes a novel draws us in because it strikes a chord from our own experience, because we identify with its characters or have lived in its setting and feel at home in its story.
Other novels do the opposite, transporting us to a place or time wholly unfamiliar and for that reason fascinating. "Bangkok Wakes to Rain," the stunning debut novel by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, was, for me, that kind of book, one that creates a world so rich and alive I wanted to swim in it.
It's a book filled with water, thanks to Bangkok's climate and geography and, perhaps, its coming fate. The novel's structure could be modeled on a watershed, separate streams of story feeding into one another until they become a river that flows across more than a century and the lives of many characters.
Sudbanthad was born in Thailand and raised in Saudi Arabia and the United States. Now a New York resident, he brings a cosmopolitan perspective and a native's deep affection to his portrait of Bangkok and its people.
Much of the book's power lies in its language and imagery, on full display in its lovely first paragraph:
"Always, she arrives near evening. The last few children in blue-and-white uniforms have finished their after-school work and are plodding along in small gangs or, like her, alone. They don't take notice of her; they have screens in their hands, shoves and teasing to repay, snacks bagged in newsprint to grease up their fingers. In their trail sparrows tussle over fallen fried crumbs and biscuit sticks trampled to powder by little shoes. A pearl-eyed lottery seller, sensing passersby from footsteps and the clap of flip-flops, calls out over an opened case of clothes-pinned tickets to whoever craves luck."
The novel at first seems like a collection of linked short stories, with characters who appear to be connected only by the city. Many of them live, in various eras, in a house built more than a century ago as a merchant's mansion. As the novel moves into the present and then several decades into the future, the site will be overtaken by a condominium building that preserves the house's facade in its lobby, an architectural ghost of the past in a modern metropolis.
"Bangkok Wakes to Rain" is itself a sort of house of ghosts and those haunted by them, in a cycle of vivid life and aching loss. Sudbanthad writes, "The forgotten return again and again, as new names and faces, and again this city makes new ghosts."
If any one story dominates the book, it's that of a woman named Nee. We meet her in the early 1970s, a time of political upheaval under the rule of a brutal dictator. Then a young nursing student, she falls in love with another student, Siripohng. In one of the book's most moving chapters, the arc of their courtship shimmers to life, and ends in tragedy. When the military attacks hundreds of thousands of demonstrating students with bombs and gunfire, Nee survives by plunging into Chao Phraya, the river that runs through Bangkok. She will surface in many other chapters, her life taking surprising turns.
Nee's sister, Nok, is one of the novel's exiles. Fleeing that same political regime, she and her husband move to Japan. They run a Thai restaurant there, thinking they are safe until the day the hungry past walks in the door. Another exile is a middle-aged photographer named Sammy. His mother, Pehn, lives in that merchant's mansion; his father, remarried, lives in London. Sammy chose his career in part because it takes him around the globe, but Bangkok calls him back.
Some of the novel's characters are Westerners who come to Thailand for what they think will only be a little while. The chapters that stretch farthest back in history are about Phineas Stevens, an American doctor who comes to what was then Siam in the late 1900s to work at a mission hospital and is overwhelmed by the "heathen city."
Among the most affecting chapters are those about an American jazz pianist, Clyde Alston. He first appears when he's hired by Pehn to perform a sort of musical exorcism of the mansion. She tells Clyde that a medium "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."
Clyde wishes he could exorcise his own ghost, a beloved he lost touch with years ago: "The most deafening thing he's ever heard is the silence between two people."
Near the novel's end, Sudbanthad moves several decades into the future. A preservationist named Woon works in a building that "floats ten kilometers west of his neighborhood, anchored to a network of piers in the newly formed sea."
His work is the rescue of artifacts from places now submerged by rising oceans, everything from stone lions and golden Buddhas to "letters from the dead to the long forgotten." Each one is "blipped" by technology that preserves its three-dimensional image, so it will live on digitally even if the object is destroyed.
Such "capture" is also used on a much larger scale. Woon's mother, in her 70s and in failing health, uses the technology to visit a relative, both of them transported to the condominium built around the old house. It's re-created for them in every detail - right down to one of its ghosts - out of the technologically harvested memories of countless other inhabitants.
The technology Sudbanthad imagines is a marvel, but it's one that might be modeled on what this novel does so beautifully: bringing a place and its people alive through story.
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