Review: Duanwad Pimwana’s Bright

After a long day of waiting on the sidewalk with his two bags, five-year-old Kampol Changsaram is faced with the reality that his father is not coming back for him, and he is all alone.

His mother had left earlier in the day, taking all their household possessions to live with the man whom she had an affair with. His father, despite promising to return, had departed with his infant brother, Jon, to his grandmother’s house. Even with this unceremonious abandonment, however, Kampol is shielded from true desolation by his neighbours. 

The young boy rotates from house to house, finding a different place to sleep each night, and is fed by the kindly neighbour who hosts him that evening. The crowded tenement neighbourhood adjust to sharing responsibility for Kampol’s wellbeing despite their initial reluctance, and his dire situation is softened by the charity he receives.

“Bright” traces Kampol’s life for a year, culminating in a series of vignettes stitched together to reveal every small detail of his reality. From rushing to rice giveaways and setting up flea market stalls to building a cardboard fort and admiring the full moon, readers are given beautiful (if brief) snippets of a young boy learning to grow up.

We see him running a variety errands – like giving Dang, the local tyre patcher, a back massage, or fetching people for the phone when someone calls the neighbourhood’s sole telephone at Hia Chong’s grocery shop – for pocket money to buy snacks. We also see him enjoy carnivals with his friend, Oan, and watch a likay theatre performance.

Duanwad Pimwana’s writing gracefully ties together the unpredictable but enjoyable everyday experiences of Kampol’s life as part of working-class community, combining her socio-political commentary with a touch of magical realism through her young narrator. Her episodic narrative allows for each adventure to be infused with lessons about resilience, dependence, and naivety.

Simple stories about playing hide and seek or climbing apple trees are transformed by Duanwad to become tales of a young boy yearning for the normalcy he once knew – dreams of returning to his family that he can’t let go of – and an impoverished community doing their best to survive. 

In this way, “Bright” is both a celebration of the power of communal kindness and the importance of individual strength. Though Kampol’s naivety can be detrimental, as we see him sometimes resist help because of his belief in his parents’ return, it is also essential in guaranteeing his survival, for it helps him stay resilient. 

Ever-adventurous Kampol grows from a child who was often lonely and uncertain to one who learns to take care of himself and those around him. As he is fed and entertained by those around him, he also helps a destitute man he notices is much hungrier than everyone else and brings attention to a young girl struggling to sell sticky rice for her family.

There is, of course, an undeniable sadness to a story about a boy who is forced to grow up from such a young age. But Kampol’s story is not purely tragic, and Pimwana utilizes a youthful perspective to inject moments of comedy into the story. The hard truths of poverty and abandonment are balanced by the light-hearted narration, creating a novel that is simultaneously comic and melancholy.  

Duanwad’s skillful characterization cannot go unmentioned. Though she introduces a plethora of characters, none of them are left one-dimensional. Names and faces grow in the reader’s mind as Kampol moves through the neighbourhood, with more prominent caretakers for the young boy evolving with each story. 

Hia Chong, the grocer, and Mon, the seamstress, come as close as you can get to parental figures. Oan and Jua accompany Kampol through almost all his adventures, from mundane activities like playing checkers to more serious conversations like figuring out what they want for their future. Eccentric personalities like Bangkerd, the mortician, or Phra Soh, the illiterate monk, complete the urban landscape Pimwana has crafted for us.

At its core, “Bright” is a novel about the nuances – be they positive or negative – of survival. Growing up and finding your place is a journey that can be as pleasant as it is difficult, rewarding as it is untenable. It is a journey that cannot be made without compassion from others or resilience within yourself. 

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