Book review: Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad is a gorgeous, immersive novel, ambitious and epic in scope while also intimate in its focus on individual character lives. This is a story that spins through time--from the tale of an American missionary in old Siam to the story of political upheaval and the massacre of student activists at Thammasat University in 1976; from the present-day where a middle-class college student considers plastic surgery to get ahead in the job market to a future where most of old Bangkok has been drowned by flood waters but the rich can upload their minds into a virtual paradise. Above all, this novel of many stories is about the city of Bangkok itself—"Krungthep” as it’s called in Thai, and as it is referred to throughout the novel.
The organizing structure of this novel only slowly becomes clear. Each chapter opens with a different viewpoint character, and there are many (including a chapter told from the perspective of stray dogs and one told from the viewpoint of birds). The story jumps backward and forward through time, in non-linear fashion. Slowly, the reader comes to realize that one unifying trait is that all the characters (however tangentially) have a relationship to a certain house in Bangkok. A grand Sino-Colonial mansion that houses American missionaries and Thai families, and is eventually incorporated into the base of a luxury condominium tower. The house is a stand-in for the great changes occurring to Krungthep/Bangkok itself—from the past to the modern era and, eventually, to the future.
Not all the stories contained within this sprawling, ambitious book work equally well. The beginning of the novel is a bit slow, and it takes time for the disparate storylines to cohere into an overall narrative with emotional momentum. But eventually, it does. The writing is sensual and evocative, and the writer has a gift for evoking the small hurts, love, and unspoken tensions within families and between loved ones. Most compelling of all is the story of one-time student activist, Nee. Nee is attending nursing school at Thammasat University in the early 1970s, where she becomes lovers with a fellow activist. They are caught up in the pro-democracy demonstrations, and following government-sponsored student massacre, of October 6, 1976. The scene where Nee hides in the river from gunfire, clinging to water hyacinths, is among the most haunting scenes I’ve ever read in fiction—all the more haunting for the spareness with which it’s told. The fallout from that day, in the lives of both Nee and her sister Nok, is the emotional heart of this book.
I admit that I would have liked to have seen more of Nee and Nok’s lives. As the narrative skips through time, there are gaps in character lives that I would have liked to have seen filled. But Bangkok Wakes to Rain is ultimately concerned with building an overall portrait of this city, evoked through multiple voices. It succeeds. Krungthep/Bangkok comes to life—ancient and modern and ever-changing; hot and teeming and overwhelmingly vibrant; hurtling into the future amidst the shadows of the past.
The author lets Nee have the last word. Years after she lost her lover in the 1976 student massacre, years during which those deaths were largely forgotten and the country saw new demonstrations and coups and crackdowns and dizzying change--Nee thinks to herself, “The forgotten return again and again, as new names and new faces, and again this city makes new ghosts.”