The City of Angels, Through the Tides of Time
The tides of time make forces things to inevitably revolve. The lines between sustainability and development become blurred as development and time both take their toll. The hubbub inevitably swallows and drowns out the herds of small voices emanating from the small cracks. As time surges and ebbs, history take its course. Past is preserved through the annuls of time. The present becomes the past and future becomes the present. The future remains shrouded by enigma. Time flows, it moves forward and everything else fades into specks of memory.
“The not remembering doesn’t really work, does it?”
Memory is one of the central themes encapsulate in Thailand-born writer Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s debut novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain. Through his work, Sudbanthad captures the story of Bangkok through three generations, creatively and powerfully capturing its past, its present and its future. Words, stories and histories broke through the barriers of time in this pulsating tale.
Time is a diaphanous presence in the story. The story’s surging tides begun in 19th century Siam when an American doctor working for a Christian mission was shocked by the primitive conditions. The story moves ever forward as the tides continue to surge. The tumultuous 1900s introduces the readers to a set of characters who play key roles in the narrative. The narrative concludes somewhere in the future, when the New Krungthep arose from the vestiges of the Old Bangkok.
“I swallowed, not knowing what I drank, medicine or poison; I only knew that I was thirsty. With every drop, I drew in the spirit of oxen and snakes, great jungle beasts ran inside me, growling. I tasted dirt and rubies and thousands of years of rain.” ~ Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Bangkok Wakes to Rain
Sudbanthad drew inspiration from the rough contours of Bangkok. From this sprawling metropolis, locally referred to as Krungthep, Sudbanthad spun a wonderful tale. In the midst of the pandemonium is a house from which stories emanated from. From this small house, the narrative exhibited the enchanting and haunting spirit of Bangkok. Bangkok Wakes to Rain is Sudbanthad’s poetic ode to his city, its past, its present, and its future.
To weave the tapestry, Sudbanthad used pivotal moments in Bangkok’s history. The resultant product is not a tawdry one but rather an exquisite one. This rich tapestry immerses the reader in the beauty and mystery of Bangkok. The tapestry was further enhanced by Sudbanthad’s wonderful writing and masterful use of language. He commanded the words with such assurance that it is one of the novel’s finer qualities.
By splitting the story into three pivotal junctures in Thailand’s history, Bangkok Wakes to Rain powerfully evokes the transformation of a place as time moves forward. The imprints of memory are scattered all over the narrative. Sudbanthad embellished the story of Bangkok with the stories of its denizens. The book is populated with colorful characters whose stories are inevitably interwoven with that of the city. Through them, the different personalities of Bangkok were vividly depicted. Both elements, the city and its people, worked cohesively to enhance the novel.
A time-defying, genre-bending work, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, beyond the finely textured layers of history, explores a bevy of subjects such as class stratification, and intercultural connections. There is one subject that was slyly shrouded by the Sudbanthad. The novel subtly and slyly underlined the impacts of climate change. Its dire and manifold consequences were highlighted in the second half of the story. It changes landscapes, and also alters the course of history and time. Sudbanthad’s painting of the aqueous climate was so vivid that readers can feel the rising tide that is slowly swallowing the city.
A literary kaleidoscope, the novel moves ever so seamlessly forward that it takes some time before the flaws started becoming more prevalent. The nonlinearity of the plot, which is reminiscent to some extent to that of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas reaches an impasse. The presence of too many story lines muddles the appreciation and understanding of the narrative.
The plot started crumbling as the timelines and the stories started colliding in a disjointed manner. The strings that bonded the story together got blurred along the way, making it more of a collection of short stories than a true novel. This holds especially true at the start when the seemingly unconnected stories leave the readers baffled. It takes some time before the storylines start to overlap. But when the invisible thread became visible, it was easier to appreciate the story.
“Pig owes her much more than she could ever pay back. It had felt much less burdensome to feel like she would always be the one to so generously give.” ~ Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Bangkok Wakes to Rain
Bangkok Wakes to Rain is the intersection of history and the story of a place and its people. It is a poignant without being nauseating. It delightfully depicts how the locals and foreigners have become insurmountably engrossed in the metropolis that is Bangkok. Sudbanthad masterfully painted an amazing landscape where stories, histories, and lives collide and thrive. In the sprawling metropolis, they flourish. The indelibility of memory lives on and moves forward. Subdanthad conjured an atmospheric novel that showcases the potential of his storytelling.
For a debut novel, Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain is ambitious and wide-ranging that held so much promise. It is an undertaking which fuses history with scientific fiction. Unfortunately, it weakened the overall impression of the narrative. There were points as well when the timeline became convoluted and the plot confusing, but the novel’s powerful writing and vivid descriptions were highlighted all through out. Sudbanthad’s acuity for literature is promising.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain is part of my 2019 Books I Look Forward to List. This is certainly an upgrade from Joanne Ramos’ The Farm which is the first book I read for my July Asian literature month. The words flowed and Sudbanthad has a good command of the language. His writing is clear, and at times, lyrical. It was just unfortunate that he tried to fit in too many things that it felt underwritten. At the start, it really gave the vibe of a short story collection. Sudbanthad redeemed himself as the story developed. Nevertheless, it is a promising start to a writing career. The writing and language were too beautiful not to be complimented. I wouldn’t mind reading more of his works.
Author: Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 357 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, Scientific Fiction
A missionary doctor pines for his native New England even as he succumbs to the vibrant chaos of nineteenth-century Siam. A post-World War II society woman marries, mothers, and holds court, little suspecting her solitary future. A jazz pianist in the age of rock, haunted by his own ghosts, is summoned to appease the house’s resident spirits. In the present, a young woman tries to outpace the long shadow of her political past. And in a future New Krungthep, teenagers earn money rowing tourists past landmarks of the drowned old city they themselves do not remember. Time collapses as these story lines collide and converge, linked by the forces voraciously making and remaking the amphibious, ever-morphing capital itself.
About the Author
Pitchaya Sudbanthad is a Thailand-born American author.
Sudbanthad grew up in Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and the American South. He has received fellowships in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts and from the MacDowell Colony.
In 2019, his debut novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, was published by Riverhead Books (US) and Sceptre (UK). Sudbanthad currently resides in Brooklyn, New York City and Bangkok, dividing his time between the two megacities.