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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: Bangkok Wakes to Rain

Bangkok Wakes to Rain - Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Three stories into Bangkok Wakes to Rain, I had a bad feeling about the “novel.” You see, there's been this trend in publishing lately where “novel” can mean many things. David Szalay's Booker nominated All That Man Is is an excellent example. It's a collection of short stories. (Publisher: No, it's a novel.) It may center on a theme, but that doesn’t make it a novel; it’s still just a collection of short stories. But short story collections do not sell as well as novels, nor do they get nominated for the Booker Prize, so I guess the publisher was (deceptively) smart.

Initially, it appears that Sudbanthad is going down the same path with Bangkok Wakes to Rain. Here are stories that have absolutely nothing to do with one another other than their connection to the setting. The first story focuses on a missionary in the 19th century. The second deals with a jazz pianist in the post-Vietnam-war era. The third of a photographer who’d emigrated to the U.S. And so on… Represented as circles with shared similarities, each story looks a little something like this.

I liked the writing, but again I felt duped and disappointed because this was not a novel.

Then a wonderful thing happens—one of the stories overlaps another. I held onto hope there’d be more. Then there is another connection. Slowly, the connections begin to build upon one another so that some stories are only lightly connected to one another, but others share so much. It could look something like this.

I was intrigued. It became a fun exercise searching for all the connections. It reminded me of a device David Mitchell might employ. This association with Mitchell was even more so made concrete by the fact that the book stretches from the colonial era into a future where cities are under water and AI plays a large role in daily living.

The writing is superb and the characters are memorable and well designed. Sudbanthad is a wonderful author who has earned a spot on my growing list of authors I will invest in in the future. Bangkok Wakes to Rain is an intriguing and intelligent novel overall, but the implementation is a bit off. Using such a device is tricky, and while I think Sudbanthad pulls it off well, it is not solid enough to sustain itself. It's close and an admirable effort, but it just doesn't quite gel. Nonetheless, I look very much look forward to the author's sophomore effort. Here is an author who knows how to use language, plot, character, and setting to form a nearly perfect novel or collection—call it what you want.