Review: Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain

Time is splintered in Pitchaya’s novel, which weaves together the lives of those separated by decades and centuries all through one connection: Bangkok.

An American missionary struggles to settle into the Siamese capital. Two sisters are estranged after the events of October 1976. A young archivist from New Krungthep documents artifacts of the sunken metropolis of the 2020s.

The novel pulls together these seemingly separate lives in a delicate and unexpected way, leaving breadcrumbs of these connections in each chapter. These chapters are often characterized by a change in perspective, though sometimes these switches occur partway through. No matter the case, the novel pivots around a specific set of characters, tracing their lives and their legacies, moving from one generation to another as the narrative turns towards Bangkok’s fictitious future.

While any book can take on a shifting point of view, Pitchaya’s mastery of perspective shines through in moments where he writes from an entirely non-human standpoint. Stray dogs, sparrows, and snakes feature as essential to the city, a natural part of life in a crowded metropolis. In these moments, seeing how characters interact with these animals are just as insightful as when characters interact with one another.

Presenting itself as anthology of lives but not separate enough to be a collection of short stories, “Bangkok Wakes to Rain” is structured in a way that truly captures the multiplicity of the individuals within its pages. Pitchaya’s textured prose lends a unique richness to a narrative that strives to portray the essence of urban life unconstrained by time.

Despite the realism of certain contexts – the political concerns of military crackdowns since the 1970s, the ecological concerns of a flooded futuristic Bangkok – it’s evident that the everyday lives of these characters remain the central pillar. No transformation can unsettle the sense of a continuing humanity, an agility to individually and collectively adapt and move forward.

There’s also a restlessness threaded in these stories, connecting them beyond the simple link of geography. Tides of change are always coming, and even in the climax of a chapter there is an unrelenting sense of anticipation. Readers are made conscious of the most mundane details, from ingredients of dishes to the cracks of sidewalks.

Coupled with this restlessness is an unshakeable sense of haunting. Whether characters are running to or away from Bangkok, they can’t get rid of their experiences of the city. Questions of belonging, memory, and reconciliation continue to swirl around the metropolis and within its inhabitants as the landscape is shaped and reshaped by the unwavering passage of time. As the narrative concludes, you can’t help but feel this is not the end: rather, that the window you have into the lives in this novel is closing, and those lives will continue without you. The privilege of voyeurism is removed.

Pitchaya’s debut work is undoubtedly impressive: his genre of writing is just as fluid as his style, constructing an altogether captivating novel. The only issue is that there’s a lethargy to its opening pages.

The power of the novel is hidden under layers of a slow opening. “Bangkok Wakes to Rain” constructs its environment at an achingly slow pace, with too little information ceded about its characters and their surroundings. While minutiae matters, it’s critical that a balance is struck between providing details and retaining a reader’s interest. There’s nearly no incentive for readers to keep reading from the get-go. It’s almost a cardinal sin, for a brilliant piece of literature to begin so lethargically.

That’s not to say that the worldbuilding of the first half is useless, or inessential to the development later in the novel. It’s that Pitchaya falls short of pacing his narrative in an engaging way to begin with. His writing gives rise to an unmatched intricacy, as previously mentioned, and that in itself is invaluable. Once momentum is gained, there is nothing you can do to put down the book. Until then, however, it’s a difficult struggle to fully invest yourself in the novel.

“Bangkok Wakes to Rain” is not a perfect novel, but it doesn’t have to be to make its mark. The impact of Pitchaya’s writing is not lost on anyone who reads the book, which strikes at core questions of urban identity and human memory. The compelling journeys of the various characters he introduces us to, and the intimate tangle of relationships that drive the novel forward, makes for an unforgettable read.

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