Bangkok Wakes to Rain

Written by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Review by Janice Ottersberg

In 23 loosely connected short stories, this time-fluid novel weaves in and out of people’s lives, around and through time from the 19th century to a future 2040 set primarily in Bangkok, also named Krungthep.  The novel begins in the current day with a girl going to visit her parents in a condominium.  This high-rise is part of a 1910 colonial mansion which we revisit through its changes over time.  The government upheavals, student protests, and coups of the 1970s and early ’80s introduce us to sisters Nee and Nok, and student Siripohng.  We also meet Pehn living in the old mansion, her son Sammy, and a jazz pianist, Clyde.  In the 1990s, the mansion has become the lobby of a new high-rise condominium where Pehn now lives.  Back to present day, we meet Mai, the unidentified girl from the first story, living in the condo building with her parents.  We also meet Mai’s best friend Pig and eventually the women’s children and grandchildren.  Jumping to 2040, Bangkok is mostly underwater, buildings are afloat, and the mansion/condo has partially sunk into the sea.  The elderly can choose to transform to an Afterbody where the brain is plugged into a host, and family and friends can visit through a portal.

Each story is interesting in itself, but it takes effort with lots of note-taking to make the connections between characters and placement in time.  The only historical pieces are three brief stories about Phineas, an American doctor working at a Chinese mission in the 19th century.  These have no connection to the other stories and don’t fit into the overall narrative.  The writing is accomplished, but the structure is messy and lacks cohesion in its execution. This book is more accurately defined as experimental literary fiction with science fiction elements.  For lovers of historical fiction, this book does not deliver.