Book review: Thai author Veeraporn Nitiprapha's spellbinding family saga

Veeraporn Nitiprapha's novel was well-received in Thailand and won the South-east Asian Writers Award in 2018. PHOTOS: RIVER BOOKS

Memories Of The Memories Of The Black Rose Cat

By Veeraporn Nitiprapha, translated by Kong Rithdee
Fiction/River Books/Paperback/330 pages/$23.54/Buy here
4 out of 5

Veeraporn Nitiprapha's multigenerational saga of a Chinese immigrant family in Thailand unfolds like a rose in bloom - its intricate layers reveal themselves in their own time, overlapping with quiet intent.

Memories Of The Memories Of The Black Rose Cat was well-received in Thailand when it was first published. It went on to win the prestigious South-east Asian Writers Award in 2018, and is now available to English readers in an excellent translation by Kong Rithdee.

The story begins in the early decades of the 20th century, when Great-Grandpa Tong arrives in Siam from Guangdong, China, to help his uncle in the rice trade. He marries Great-Grandma Sangiem, a palace cook, and they have five children together.

The narrator tells of the family's trials and tribulations against the turbulent backdrop of the Siamese Revolution of 1932, World War II, various rebellions and coups, and the Vietnam War.

Memory is a slippery, untrustworthy thing, and memories of memories even more so. Events of the past are loosely framed by Dao, a mysterious boy in an old house who contemplates the memories of Grandma Sri, one of Tong's daughters.

Another shadowy figure is the titular Black Rose Cat, partly named for "the twirl of overlapping patterns on its back, cascading from jet black to the shade of glowing particles of sand, each hue seeping into one another as if painted by watercolours".

This is a fitting analogy for the structure of the book, whose chapters - ringed with foreshadowings - meld like ripples of rain in water.

Memories Of The Memories Of The Black Rose Cat deals in familiar tropes, lending itself easily to comparisons with the work of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with its touch of magical realism, and the Chinese classic Dream Of The Red Chamber, another saga about a family and its declining fortunes.

With so many coincidences and tragic twists, there is also a whiff of the lakorn, the Thai television soap opera. Veeraporn sidesteps many of that genre's melodra- matic histrionics while - as in her earlier novel The Blind Earthworm In The Labyrinth (2018) - exploiting its addictive potential.

Kong, a Thai film critic known for his columns in the Bangkok Post, renders the beauty of the original text in natural, supple prose.

The book describes, in moving detail, Great-Grandpa Tong's feelings of being unmoored, yearning for his ancestral homeland while building a life in his adopted country.

It also pays remarkable attention to the backstories of minor characters - from the salt hawker who sold off his son and then spent years looking for him, to the old woman who cares for a man left crippled by wartime bombings.

Veeraporn's book is an atmospheric, spellbinding tapestry of Chinese diaspora life in Thailand, and a poignant depiction of human tragedy in the face of an indifferent universe.

"Just like that?" murmurs one of its characters, her life cut short. Yes - and such is life.

If you like this, read: The Blind Earthworm In The Labyrinth (River Books, 2018, $19.05, buy here). Veeraporn's earlier novel, also translated by Kong, which tells the story of two sisters and a boy in Thailand.

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