Book review: Bangkok Wakes To Rain is Pitchaya Sudbanthad's evocative debut novel

Bangkok Wakes To Rain is anchored in the site of an old house in the Thai capital, which witnesses a sea change over two centuries.
Bangkok Wakes To Rain is anchored in the site of an old house in the Thai capital, which witnesses a sea change over two centuries.PHOTO: SCEPTRE BOOKS

Review

FICTION

BANGKOK WAKES TO RAIN

By Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Hodder & Stoughton/Paperback/360 pages/$27.95/Books Kinokuniya

4 stars


Bangkok may be under water in less than 15 years. This is not fantasy but a real possibility, say experts who estimate that the Thai capital is sinking by 2cm a year.

How topical, then, that the motif of water should loom large in Thai novelist Pitchaya Sudbanthad's elegantly written debut novel Bangkok Wakes To Rain.

The story is anchored in the site of an old house in the Thai capital, which witnesses a sea change over two centuries. We drift between a series of loosely linked narratives in different time periods - from the travails of a missionary in 19th century Siam to the student demonstrations in the 1970s; from the smells of contemporary Bangkok to the underwater city of the future.

Amnesia, reflected in the modern city's willingness to forget certain aspects of its past, is one of the themes in the book. An old, grand house in the city makes way for a high-rise condo, which is in turn subsumed by floodwaters.

Should we regard the Bangkok of Pitchaya's novel as a kind of modern-day Atlantis, a parable of a metropolis that is not only forgetful but also short-sighted, in failing to learn from the past and avert future disaster? Is there a whiff of hubris to the fact that the weight of Bangkok's glitzy skyscrapers has been causing it to sink?

Not quite. Pitchaya's novel has a slipperiness to it, one that frustrates attempts to wrestle answers from it. The reader may feel unmoored, but the beauty of the prose usually makes up for this (aside, perhaps, from the chapters on a 19th century American doctor called Phineas Stevens, where the style is horribly affected).

 

One of the curious things about Pitchaya's writing is its submerged, muted quality - reading it can feel a bit like listening to someone play the piano while never taking their foot off the soft pedal.

The chapters invoking spectres of the country's devastating 2011 floods - the stuff of newspaper headlines - have a strange dreaminess about them, reading more like a mock mythology as rising waters unleash crocodiles upon the city folk:

"Children were disappearing midswim in flooded streets, some swore, and the tale spread of a heroic woman who'd managed to wrestle a dropped phone from the jaws of one ferocious beast."

The book is a deviously evocative piece of work: one can almost smell the rain.

If you like this, read: Cloud Atlas (Sceptre, 2004, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), a novel by David Mitchell which consists of six nested narratives spanning from the South Pacific in the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future.