THE GLASS KINGDOM
By Lawrence Osborne
Sarah Mullins, an American woman newly arrived in Bangkok, wakes in her apartment at dawn. The first winds and rains of a monsoon are sweeping in and geckos hunt on the walls above her bed. Later that morning, while taking a dip in the communal swimming pool, she meets Mali, a “Thai or Eurasian” woman about her age, “30 more or less.” Befriended by her and two other women in the complex — Ximena, a Chilean chef, and Natalie, a British hotel manager — Sarah seems about to build a life for herself. But her new friends, the staff in her apartment block and Thai society as a whole all appear to have other plans for her.
Like many of the characters in Lawrence Osborne’s new novel, “The Glass Kingdom,” Sarah is on the run. Her back story of defrauding her employer, an elderly author she once revered, is no more than a device for getting her to Thailand with a suitcase full of cash, which she stashes in her closet and is then conveniently happy to tell people about. She’s also the kind of person who will forget to lock her door, even when she’s frightened, and leaves a bloodied nightgown — evidence of her complicity in a murder — in a washing machine, “stupidly forgotten” for a whole week.
The point of view switches first to the secretive Mali and then begins to roam from one character to another, often in the same scene. New perspectives and back stories keep being introduced even toward the end, when we would really just rather know what is going to happen.
This wandering viewpoint — which seems too arbitrary to count as authorial omniscience — is annoying, but as unrest grows on the streets outside, and the characters become trapped in the apartment block, the novel begins to exert a sinister pull. Gradually, it becomes apparent that Sarah and her predicament have never been the point. The clue is in the title: The main character of “The Glass Kingdom” is the glass Kingdom, the apartment complex, with its yellow flowers in the lobby denoting the owner’s loyalty to the authorities, even as civil unrest leads to frequent power cuts and the rainy season gathers oppressive force. Before long, the army is called out onto the streets of Bangkok, the air-conditioning in the building malfunctions and the wealthier residents flee in droves. For Sarah, the Kingdom becomes half refuge, half prison.
It is at this point that the full force of Osborne’s acutely drawn but bleak and bitter vision comes into play. When Sarah is forced to descend the emergency stairwell during a power cut, she picks her way “slowly downward, feeling the walls with her hands … her head beaten softly by clouds of moths.” Later, when the security guards have fled along with most of the residents, packs of stray dogs enter the building and begin to roam the pitch-black corridors, sniffing at her door at night.
Osborne has often been compared to Graham Greene, and it sometimes feels as though he would be more comfortable setting his books in the 1930s or ’40s, when women were “girls” and the local inhabitants of an equatorial country were not to be trusted. “The Glass Kingdom” seems to be set some time after Thailand’s 2014 military coup, although the exact year is never stated. There are glancing references to Facebook and Google, but even though the main characters are international 30-somethings nobody seems to check their emails or social media; they hardly even use their mobile phones.
Where Osborne is ineluctably Greenian is in his misanthropy. The Thai staff of the Kingdom may veer toward stereotype, but the disdain the foreigners show for them is more than reciprocated. Goi, the apartment-block maid, observes that the expats, the farang, are like “monstrous children” who are “always unhappy in petty and enigmatic ways,” and the author saves his most cutting satire for the revolting Roland, Natalie’s husband, who visits local drinking places for “a couple of Dalwhinnies at the bar and a pretty girl, a bout of nothingness,” while being possessively jealous of his wife’s female friends.
The main plot of the book seems incidental to these character sketches. There’s the murder, and some blackmail, but what draws Osborne’s finest sentences is observation and atmosphere: “By sundown, mist had curled around the tops of the towers and flashes of lightning took the form of immense trees with dozens of branches that reached down and momentarily touched the earth.” Or: “On the matted and long-abandoned cables that looped their way across the surfaces of the shop-houses a few birds sat morosely, as if waiting for someone to make a mistake.” The author’s exceptional descriptive skills fuel an overwhelming sense of menace: It is no mean feat to make the ending of a novel truly shocking when the reader doesn’t particularly like or believe in any of the characters. The conclusion may be nihilistic to the point of sadism, but the next day you will still be thinking of Sarah’s fate with horror.