Rating: 4 stars
Read as part of the Reader’s Room Read Around the World challenge.
I’m only loosely doing the current challenge on the Reader’s Room. I still have too many books on my pile to commit fully to tracking down books from far flung corners of the world. June is Thailand, though, and I thought some Thai literature might make for good summer reading.
My library has a copy of Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s Sightseeing. This is a collection of short stories set in Thailand, that shines a light on local life, both away from the tourist industry and where it butts up to it.
I’ve never been to Thailand. I have a preconception of what the tourist experience might be, so it was interesting to read about it from a non-tourist perspective. And I always enjoy reading about life in other countries, in the ways it is the same as and the ways in which it differs from my life.
Each story gives a snapshot of the characters’ lives. Lapcharoensap drops us into the scene and has the narrator give us context while the action unfolds. He leaves the ends of each tale loosely tied, enough to keep us wondering about what happened next. He also writes well from a variety of viewpoints, whether as an 11 year old boy discovering that refugees are people too, or as an older man debilitated by a stroke, or as a fifteen year old girl realising that adults are imperfect.
The title story is tender, about a mother and son dealing with big changes in both their lives, and taking a holiday together as a marker for the point of change.
Draft Day reveals how the system of conscription can be manipulated, and how that can affect friendships. The narrator here faces a moral question and chooses to live with regret.
There is hardship, and a light is shone on the attitude some tourists have towards the people whose country they are experiencing. Some of the tourists in the book are dispiritingly entitled and patronising. Others are kinder in their curiosity, but still detached from the realities of local life. The locals, naturally, understand this and, for the most part, play the role that is expected of them. It made me think about how some people from the west view travel: a list of must-see destinations that need to be checked off so they can feel they’ve really lived. As though it’s enough to go there and do the tourist thing without really experiencing what makes a place tick. To an extent, this collection shows what it’s like to be on the other side of that.
The final story fills roughly a third of the book and is riveting. It’s a classic tale of small town bullying and a family almost ruined when the father tries to stand up to the son of the man who runs the town. The narrator is a 15 year old girl, coming to terms with her nascent adulthood, starting to see her father in a new light. It’s beautifully written and the best piece in the book.
I’m interested to read more by Lapcharoensap, but it seems he doesn’t have anything else published in book form yet. I might have to keep an eye out for short stories in magazines.