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Bangkok Wakes to Rain
by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
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Interconnected stories set in Bangkok, a house in Bangkok. The different people all have some connections to the house or each other. Debut novel with a bit of science fiction and referred to as ecofiction.
Manages to capture slivers of what the great city is like and the stories that intertwine there. However, I felt as though I missed something - was it the wide-ranging stories that never really seemed to come together? Perhaps my addled/aging brain lost track of how things were supposed to have coalesce (?). An authentic rendering, but one that left me confused...
Two Centuries of Krung Thep
Review of the Riverhead Books hardcover edition (2019)
See photograph at https://foreignpolicy.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/120523_136.jpg
Photograph of the Brahmin giant swing ritual in Bangkok, Thailand which was eventually banned in the early 20th century for safety reasons. Image sourced from Once Upon a Time in Bangkok.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain is a tour-de-force balancing act of interconnected stories spanning two centuries. My instinctive thought for an image to illustrate this review was to search for an historic photograph of the traditional (but now banned) Brahmin swing ritual that was described in its pages.
Sudbanthad's first novel takes us on a journey from historic fiction in the mid-19th century to science & climate fiction in mid 21st Thailand. The timeline starts with a American Christian missionary doctor posted to 1850s Krung Thep (the Thai name for Bangkok) to a 2050s water submerged city where people can have a virtual afterbody life and still interact with full-bodied beings who have not yet chosen to make the transition.
The chapters are mostly centred around a multi-story condominium complex built around the facade of a rich family's dwelling (the family are the partners of the missionary doctor who chose to go into trade). The connections are not all family and a few times they are not human (e.g. chapters devoted to dogs, birds, etc.) They can be as tenuous as one character being the swimming teacher of another. There are themes of separation and longing throughout as various characters leave or return or are estranged from their homeland. The novel also will reward rereads, as connections that were not apparent at first will be more obvious the 2nd time around.
It is hard to imagine what Sudbanthad will write next, as this feels like a magnum opus already written and done.
As Catastrophic Waters Rise in Thailand, a Writer Examines the Past and Imagines the Future by Ron Charles at The Washington Post, February 14, 2019.
Stories Converge in a Flooded Bangkok by Michael Schaub at NPR.org February 20, 2019.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad review - a city of memories by Tash Aw in The Guardian, March 9, 2019.
Two Thai Novelists Explore Bangkok’s Swirl of Remembering and Forgetting by Hannah Beech in The New York Times, April , 2019.
Review: Pitchaya Sudbanthad's Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Chanikarn Kovavisarach at Thai Enquirer, February 19, 2021.
Wonderfully well-written and the Audible version well read by Euan Morton. Since I was listening to the book, I did get confused by the many characters and time lines. I think I re-listened to most of the first half of the book and it is a testament to the story that this effort did not deter me nor ruin my enjoyment. I don’t think I have ever read another novel about Thailand and I don’t know much of its history. But the author created a magical place, even amid revolt, squalor, and the eventual drowning of the city. I was moved.
"A house in the center of Bangkok becomes the point of confluence where lives are shaped by upheaval, memory, and the lure of home. Witness to two centuries' flux in one of the world's most restless cities, a house plays host to longings and losses past, present, and future. A nineteenth-century missionary doctor pines for the comforts of New England even as he finds the vibrant foreign chaos of Siam increasingly difficult to resist. A post-war society woman marries, mothers, and holds court, little suspecting the course of her future. A jazz pianist is summoned in the 1970s to conjure music that will pacify resident spirits, even as he's haunted by ghosts of his former life. Not long after, a young woman gives swimming lessons in the luxury condos that have eclipsed the old house, trying to outpace the long shadow of her political past. And in the post-submergence Bangkok of the future, a band of savvy teenagers guides tourists and former residents past waterlogged, ruined landmarks, selling them tissues to wipe their tears for places they themselves do not remember. Time collapses as these stories collide and converge, linked by blood, memory, yearning, chance, and the forces voraciously making and remaking the amphibian, ever-morphing city itself. Bangkok Wakes to Rain is a wildly imaginative, mesmerizing reading experience from an author at the beginning of what promises to be a thrilling career"--
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813.6 — Literature English (North America) American fiction 21st Century
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Though portions take place in Japan, the UK, and the US, the central location of the novel is Bangkok. There are recurring themes involving civil unrest, weather (especially flooding), and birds. It ranges in time from the 19th century to the future. It will appeal to those who enjoy experimental fiction. I do not normally select books based on the cover, but this cover is a piece of art – absolutely gorgeous.
I enjoyed the writing style, such as this description of the impact of rain: “The parts of the city that used to be marshes and rice fields are sinking the fastest. With clear weather, she can see the unnerving tilt of distant towers, perceptibly angled toward and away from each other like wild shoots of bamboo. People still live there. If she looked through Woon’s old binoculars, she would be able to make out bedsheets and towels drying on balcony clotheslines and, at night, the flickering white of screens. It’s all perfectly safe, a minor lifestyle adjustment, the officials declared.” I liked it enough to read another book by this author.