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Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Glass Kingdom by Lawrence Osborne

Hogarth, 304 pages, $27

Right on the heels of a review I wrote in which I expressed my mild dissatisfaction with how the author had too much description of the setting before getting to the action, I have to write this review in which I will begin by praising a book and saying it was almost all description of the setting. In my defense, I think intention is everything. And Lawrence Osborne’s intent in “The Glass Kingdom,” I think, was to create a lush but menacing atmosphere to surround a little nugget of a story.

Sarah is a 30-something assistant in New York to a well-known author. Eventually, we learn her name is Sarah but the rest of her name is made up. And we don’t actually find out she worked for the famous author until the book has gone on a little bit. This is what Osborne starts with: Sarah is a farang or foreigner in Bangkok, Thailand. She is living in a luxury apartment in an old part of Bangkok that was once part of the estate of the aristocratic Lim family. Because of the almost constant political unrest and economic instability, the family no longer has a family compound but instead has erected a luxury apartment complex called the Kingdom. Sarah doesn’t appear to have any job.

We know Sarah is running from something. She is nervous, she trusts no one, she sees movement in the shadows, she thinks people are following her. Reluctantly, she makes the acquaintance of a young woman, Mali, who lives in one of the other units. Through her, she meets two other women, Ximena and Natalie, in the complex. They have an occasional poker and get-drunk night. Even though Sarah has a tight-lipped sort of fun, she is wary of extending her hand further in friendship. Ximena is a chef from Chile, Natalie, a European, is a manager at the Marriott Hotel, and who knows what Mali does. Mali, who looks only part-Thai, hints she is from a wealthy family, that she works in an office with loose office hours, and that she has an older Japanese man friend. And a dog. Mali has a little dog.

Throughout the book, a sinister note sounds at all times (even when it comes to the dog). Osborne creates an environment that hints that the lush greenery surrounding that section of Bangkok can become wild jungle at any moment should the gardener and guards relax their concentration. It is on the cusp of the monsoon season when the book begins, and the storms begin in earnest a short time later. Always there is the heavy humidity and heat. At one point the electricity goes out, and Sarah contemplates the enormous task of walking up fifteen flights of stairs.

Sarah and the other women, with the exception of Mali who seems to know what is going on at all times, are sheltered, encased in a bubble in the Kingdom. Sarah especially has no idea what is going on when she hears gunshots, sees smoke, hears chanting. Nor does it seem she really wants to know. She is just biding her time.

Then everything begins the slow slide off into the peculiar, the abnormal, the irregular. Even though Sarah has not been in Bangkok very long, she has some expectations: Restaurants will serve food, stores will sell supplies, the streets will be busy. But something is happening out “there,” and it is having an effect on the Kingdom. Oh, don’t pay any attention, Mali and Mrs. Lim say. But that’s the sort of advice that could get a gal into trouble.

Every day there was a slight feeling of risk, of impermanence. The Kingdom protected them and gave them status, but also made it clear that they were ultimately worthless in the social dimension. It was a refuge, a prison, a fantasy, and a luxury living machine all at once.

And here is one of Osborne’s long journeys into description that brings life to Sarah’s Bangkok:

The long monsoon had by now settled into its rhythm, alternating violence and periods of silence. Around the Kingdom ghostly laburnum flowers appeared in the empty lots one day as if summoned into existence, a slow-motion blossoming that carried a sinister beauty into the cloudy evenings. In the interior gardens the winds came and went with bewildering speed, blowing the fading moths here and there, and over the neighboring towers a moon with a vast smoky halo appeared, calling the daydreaming mind back to past centuries.

Osborne has created a very good horror— for lack of a better description — novel, with the same embrace of dread found in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. It’s a light Osborne keeps lit almost until the very last page.

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