I have found Thailand one of the most challenging of our World Challenge countries, because in general the literature about this beautiful, friendly country is very different from that of others in the region. When it comes to countries like Japan or China for example, there is a multitude of books to choose from which explore issues such as family life, the position of women, aspects of history etc – all subjects I am passionate about. But when it comes to Thailand, the novels available tend to fall into two categories.
The first are books about Bangkok crime – such as John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, described as “ a sexy, razor-edged, often darkly hilarious novel set in one of the world’s most exotic cities” or Dean Barrett’s Skytrain to Murder in which an American detective is on the trail of a murderer through “Bangkok’s seedy underbelly including dangerous slums, high class gentlemen clubs and a house of domination.” These novels have a big following, and for those who like gritty, underworld crime they are ideal.
The second category consists of books about Western sex-tourists and their relationships with conniving Thai bar girls. These books are often marketed as “warnings” to gullible Western men and at least on first glance appear to do little to really explore beyond the stereotypes. At this stage I am loathe to include these novels on Packabook’s list of books set in Thailand, until I have had a chance to read some of them myself and determine their level of sensitivity and respect for the country itself. So far, I’m not convinced.
Neither of these categories particularly appealed to me as I searched for a book to read for our challenge this month…but I have found a few other titles which look a little more promising.
You may want to try Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, a mystery novel set in the northern hills. Reviews suggest this novel gives a sensitive and well-researched perspective on the landscape as well as the cultures of tribes in the area.
Or for a closer look at Bangkok there is Letters from Thailand, a 1969 novel by Botan which has recently been re-released in English. The book is one of the country’s most enduring novels and gives us the story of a Chinese migrant attempting to make his fortune in Thailand.
But for this challenge I decided to try a new release which ticked all the right boxes for me, and had the added advantage of being set in a place I have actually been to, albeit just for a few hours.
Cross Currents is a novel set on Ko Phi Phi Don, an island off the coast of Phuket. You may be more familiar with one of the other Phi Phi islands, Ko Phi Phi Leh the location for Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2000 film ‘The Beach’ which introduced the stunning beauty of the islands to the world.
This novel is set the week before the Asian tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, so there are no prizes for guessing where things are heading. While the actual number of people who died on Phi Phi during the tsunami is hard to determine and will probably never be known, it seems it was in the thousands. The particular shape of Phi Phi Don (butterfly-shaped with two wide bays and a thin strip of land in between) meant it was hit by waves from two directions. The resulting damage and loss of life were devastating, and the infrastructure has had to be completely rebuilt since.
Cross Currents tells of a family who run a small resort on Ko Phi Phi Don. Lek and Sarai depend on convincing a few tourists a day to stay in their beachside bungalows, but it’s a challenge. Many people prefer to stay in high-end accommodation, and for the family, it is a daily battle to make ends meet. Into the picture comes a young American called Patch who is clearly on the run from someone, but is helping Lek out with work around the resort. When Patch’s brother arrives to try and convince him to give himself up, he is torn between dealing with his past and staying in paradise and helping the family who have pretty much adopted him.
Ko Phi Phi Don – Image courtesy of C-Fix via Wikimedia Commons
The novel has a fairly simple narrative and won’t tax your brain cells too much, but it does a lovely job in exploring the lives and feelings of the protagonists. We get a wonderful insight into Lek and his family and the challenges they face, something I doubt you’d be able to read about anywhere else. The tension obviously grows as we approach Boxing Day, as we all know what is about to engulf this beautiful island. The description of the tsunami itself is terrifying, and while the ending of the novel feels a little unbelievable, it takes nothing away from the emotion of the story itself.
There are some wonderful characters in this novel, not least two of Lek’s children; his witty, feisty daughter and his dreamy, budding marine biologist son. As that tsunami approaches, I can guarantee you will be praying to every god you’ve ever heard of for those two delightful children to survive. It is heartbreaking to think of the number of children who were actually swept away when the wave approached, and the novel really brings that home.
I highly recommend this book for those of you looking to join us for the Thailand leg of the World Party Reading Challenge. If you fancy trying something else, here’s our selection of books set in Thailand to explore. Let us know what you are reading and what you think of it in the comments…
Packabook was kindly provided with a review copy of the book “Cross Currents” by the publishers.
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.