A GOOD TRUE THAI
By Sunisa Manning
Epigram Books/ Paperback/ 354 pages/ $24.90/Available here
3 out of 5
Set against the chaotic backdrop of the socio-political upheaval of 1970s Thailand, this debut novel cuts a brilliant portrait of youth and friendship, but ultimately allows its ideas to obscure its real strength: its characters.
Selected as a finalist for the 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, the novel centres on the lives of three friends.
It chronicles their involvement with peasant-led, Communist-linked protests that engulfed Thailand in that period - a state of unrest which finds echoes in the country's present situation, with anti-government protests threatening to choke Bangkok since last year despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Thai-American writer Manning negotiates these issues through the eyes of her young protagonists - Det, Chang and Lek - and their deeply entwined lives.
The characters play off one another. High-born Det is placed in contrast with his best friend Chang, who is from the slums, and Lek, a Chinese immigrant whom both boys come to love.
Each is forced to make choices between what is expected of them by their families and social classes and what their friendships and beliefs demand, a tension which drives the novel's central drama.
These characters are, at their core, constructed as a critique of Thailand's entrenched aristocracy, but it is their realness that proves the novel's main strength at first.
The reader feels for Det as he struggles to earn the respect of his peers despite his privilege. His textured grief over the loss of his mother and his loyalty to her royal blood come into constant conflict with his new friendships and burgeoning socialism.
But the line between characters as realised persons instead of simple containers for ideas requires nuanced negotiation, and it blurs as Manning allows her trio of protagonists to slip into caricatures as the book reaches its climax.
This sense of unevenness bleeds into the novel's writing as well. Manning's prose is lyrical and fluid, often ending her short chapters with a careful flourish: "The bullet arced, then dropped. There was a calm, easy stillness. Det wasn't surprised that his shot met the beating middle of the target."
But she is at times overzealous with this ability, reaching when she should be pulling back, making her usually light and careful text heavy in a way that borders on cliche.
This quibble aside, her prose and its lightness are otherwise a powerful strength in handling the weight of her material - monarchy, democracy and family - with a measure of grace.
If you like this, read: Many Lives by Kukrit Pramoj, translated by Meredith Borthwick (Silkworm Books, 2000, $33.45, available here). Kukrit - who also served as the 13th Thai prime minister - crafts a picture of 1950s Thailand by retracing the lives of the drowned passengers of a capsized boat.