American Sarah Mullins, an erstwhile mousy brunette turned blue-eyed blonde, has just pulled off an obscure literary fraud, netting a suitcase of cash and needing a place to hide out, which is why Lawrence Osborne’s most recent novel opens in a luxury apartment in an upscale residential tower block in Bangkok known as “The Kingdom”.
At her first early morning swim, she meets the Thai, or maybe half-Thai, Mali; an invitation to a women’s-only poker night follows. Ximena, an expat Chilean chef and Nat, a British hotel manager married to a British executive, residents all, make up the quartet. Several joints and bottles of booze later, Sarah develops a wary camaraderie which leavens an otherwise monotonous existence.
Sarah’s not the only who isn’t what she seems, nor is she the first farang to be taken in by Thailand and a Thai con. The Glass Kingdom is more noir psycho-drama than crime thriller. Told from a half-dozen different mostly female perspectives, it is, even more than some of Osborne’s previous novels, a slow burn. Yet so adept is Osborne at atmospherics—literal and metaphorical—that once sucked in, it is hard to put the book down.
Osborne’s Bangkok broods.
This is not the “Land of Smiles”. Osborne’s Bangkok broods: the climate, a sense of decay and society coming apart. But in the brooding, beauty:
the avenues like disordered reliquary shops, the decay that held a dark human nectar inside it.
The foreigners are all messed up one way or another, in Bangkok escaping from something. The Thais, whether landlords or staff, put up with them until they can be taken advantage of. Osborne is good with details, from the Upper House Hotel in Hong Kong’s Pacific Place, to Sukhumvit’s various soi, the Kinokuniya bookstore in the Emporium Mall, and the smattering of Thai that peppers the pages: it all checks out for anyone who cares to look it up. The background of increasing social unrest with rolling blackouts and protests has just enough anchor in recent newspaper stories to provide verisimilitude.
Although Osborne has been compared to both Graham Greene and Paul Bowles—this novel is a reminder why “expat fiction” can be a worthy exercise in the right hands—there’s a Gormenghast quality to The Kingdom. Like Mervyn Peake’s decaying Gothic castle, its four 24-floor towers are emptying as they decompose from neglect and pressure from the elements and the world outside:
The outer world of insects, riots, and disorder was openly penetrating the inner world of elevators, generators, privacy, and locks.
There’s little privacy due to all the glass, and the occupants are eccentric, secretive and suspicious. The staff spy, plot and steal.
The Glass Kingdom is filled with unexpected descriptions: a flat laconically decorated with the “gold apsaras of weekend markets and airport lounges”; a lobby in which “the turtles in the rock pool had all clambered onto the sole rock as if something in the water had expelled them.” Later,
on the matted and long-abandoned cables that looped their way across the surfaces of the shophouses a few birds sat morosely, as if waiting for someone to make a mistake.
Come for the writing, but stay for the plot. Osborne leaves us, like Sarah, looking in all the wrong places.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.