Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s monumental and polyphonic debut novel, “Bangkok Wakes to Rain,” is a sweeping epic with the amphibious city of the title at its scintillating center.
The individual stories seem disconnected at first, almost like raindrops, discrete unto themselves. There is the unnamed woman who meanders Bangkok’s streets in the 21st century; Phineas Stevens, the missionary doctor of a century ago who longs for New England and its waters “cold, clean, without crocodiles”; Crazy Legs Clyde, the piano player from the States who performs “weeknights at the Servicemen’s Club” during the Vietnam War era; Sammy, the photographer returning to London to visit his dying father, once “a Thammasat-educated rising star of international politics,” in the 1970s; Siripohng, the engineering student among the tens of thousands of protesters who move “together like a giant animal, each tiny human a cell of the beast” in the capital (going by its Thai name, Krungthep) in 1973; and many more.
But like raindrops, these stories flow together to make a totality, a stream of narrative that floods the reader with the vibrant sense of a global metropolis whose only constant is constant change. Sudbanthad weaves his interconnected tales around a said-to-be-haunted “old colonial-style mansion,” a literal and symbolic hub of Bangkok’s perpetual transformations.
The novel’s texture feels cinematic, but more immersive than a movie, in part because of the evocation of the scents of the setting: “the ashen smell always in the air. Somewhere, a garbage heap incinerates underneath a highway overpass; in temples, incense sticks release sweet smoke to the holy and the dead; flames curl blue in the open-air gas grills of shophouse food stalls.”
Sudbanthad was born in Thailand, grew up in Saudi Arabia and the American South, and now splits his time between Bangkok and Brooklyn. His ambitious novel reflects that peripatetic and cosmopolitan sensibility. Divided into four parts, by turns realistic and mystical, historical and speculative, the book is beautifully diffuse, not unlike the character Nee’s description of why she loves swimming, “diving into that blue water and dissolving.” Deftly depicting countless political, humanitarian and ecological upheavals, the lively writing never gives short shrift to plot or character development.
In the vein of Arundhati Roy, Haruki Murakami or David Mitchell, Sudbanthad’s elaborate, time-hopping saga explores class stratifications, intercultural connections and disconnections, and finely textured layers of history, all the while raising fascinating questions about the future. Each individual character is finely drawn, but the brightest portrait he paints is of the city of Bangkok itself, illustrating how places of dense human habitation are not unlike rivers, surging with water from countless sources to make a single, unpredictable and unstoppable force.
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and “The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte.”
Bangkok Wakes to Rain
By: Pitchaya Sudbanthad.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 360 pages, $27.