THE BLIND EARTHWORM IN THE LABYRINTH
By Veeraporn Nitiprapha
River Books/Paperback/206 pages/$18.30/Books Kinokuniya
Four and a half stars
A pregnant woman walks in on her husband with his lover and is so shaken that she gives birth prematurely, to a girl named Chareeya. The husband ends the affair but is so heartbroken that he dies; his embittered wife dies soon after.
Such is the overwrought opening of Thai writer Veeraporn Nitiprapha's feverish and dreamy novel, which was first published in 2015 and was recently translated into English by film critic Kong Rithdee.
The novel, which won Veeraporn the first of her two South-east Asian Writers Awards in 2015, is a tour de force that looks at the romantic ideals that come to us from stories and songs, and how they can cause us to lose our way, like blind earthworms in a labyrinth.
In the book, characters knock their heads against the wall, literally tear their hair out and bite their lips until they bleed - all in the name of love.
Some bawl their hearts out to songs like disco anthem I Will Survive, others get schooled in "the music of overwhelming passion: the tremors that shook the heart in Brahms' Symphony No. 4", not to mention "the passionate lamentations of countless operas with a succession of heroines who kept killing themselves in screaming fits at the end of every final act".
Like their parents, Chareeya and older sister Chalika struggle with affairs of the heart. Chalika is too absorbed in romance novels to make real connections; Chareeya falls for a string of bad boys even as her childhood friend Pran secretly pines for her.
One of Chareeya's dubious choices, for example, is Natee, a journalist who pretends to go on reporting trips to war-torn areas in the hope of making his lovers sick with longing.
Veeraporn, who felt compelled to write this book after seeing the clashes between pro- and anti-government forces in Thailand in 2010, seems to suggest that, just like romanticising love, romanticising political leaders can lead to madness and delusion.
It is telling that the characters in the book most passionate about politics are the worst hypocrites.
Thana, a democracy activist Chareeya elopes with, turns eventually into a right-wing politician who later supports a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
This slim novel is like a seductive and intoxicating soap opera.
In its universe, there is a pub called The Bleeding Heart, a bar called Soldier of Love and a cafe that "smelled of loneliness". It is a world suffused with rain and tears, the smell of flowers and perfume, the sad sounds of violin strings.
Melodramatic and mesmerising, the book dives deep into love and comes up smelling of roses.
If you like this, read:
Essays In Love by Alain de Botton (Pan Macmillan, 2015,$19.94, Books Kinokuniya) examines the different stages of love in a cool-headed and philosophical manner.