Bangkok Wakes to Rain
By Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Read Nov 2021
This novel follows an approach somewhat similar to The Overstory: many characters are introduced in separate chapters that seem like separate individual stories. Unlike The Overstory, all the characters introduced are not brought together at some point. The closest thing to connection between many of them is a house built in the distant past that is eventually converted to a condominium tower with the last home owner in the penthouse. In this book, the characters that are introduced are not necessarily even ever seen again, such as an engineering student who gets involved in the student demonstrations in 1973. He is killed during the demonstration but his girlfriend, Nee, who is a fairly minor character in this chapter, is introduced. She is one of two sisters whose family members appear in several chapters. Nok, Nee’s sister has gone to Japan to attend university but stays there and opens a Thai restaurant. The sisters become estranged when Nok unknowingly serves food to a coronel involved in the student slaughter in 1973 and who later fled when his regime is overthrown. Nee and Nok’s children and grandchildren are characters in some of the later chapters.
The timeframe covered in the book is quite large, starting in the late 1800’s with an English doctor who arrives to provide healthcare to a Christian mission, and going to some unspecified time in the future. The author veers into speculative fiction for these later times. Bangkok is in 2021 actually already certainly sinking and the country is already suffering from ocean rise due to climate change. The author takes this aspect further with chapters in which Bangkok is mainly underwater; he amplifies the current disparity of impact of ocean rise related to socioeconomic class.
He goes another speculative path in chapters with a character, Mia, a friend of a daughter of Nee, who was involved in designing and implementing a technology that allows people to leave their bodies behind and have their minds exist in some sort of virtual reality. Mia went through this process herself. She meets her friend, Pig, occasionally in a virtual reality space when Pig undergoes some kind of temporary process that allows her to interact with transformed people. Pig’s children are encouraging her to undergo the transformation that Mia did before Pig’s body dies, but Pig is resisting.
So, the book takes on a huge amount of social issue territory and does so somewhat successfully. Climate change, the large gap in resources available to persons on different parts of the socioeconomic ladder, racism, government instability and its impacts among others.
However, the very loose connection of the various stories and the sometime overly meticulous detail of the geography resulted in a loss of any rhythm of the human stories for which this reader hungered. This reader stopped about midway in the book and started reading from the beginning again as she had lost track of the various characters. It didn’t get much easier in the second half but this reader didn’t decide to re-read that half as well and settled for a general impression of the book vs a more detailed and more deep analytical consideration of it. There is much going on in this book and a reader willing to put in the time and effort will find much to consider. Certainly, it is a “discussable” book and one that this reader’s book group explored deeply. As usual, this discussion provided this reader a much greater appreciation of the book than she had at the start of the discussion.
This reader is generally glad it was a part of her book group’s schedule so that she persevered through the book. The author isn’t fully successful but as a debut novel, there is much hope for even better novels to come from this author.