False smiles and lush locations pervade ‘The Glass Kingdom’

A confidence woman’s plans are derailed as she lands in Bangkok and meets a cast of mysterious characters who inhabit a crumbling apartment complex.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“The Glass Kingdom” by Lawrence Osborne, Hogarth, 274 pp.

If your taste in fiction runs to psychological thrillers with elaborate prose and exotic locations, “The Glass Kingdom” is worth a read.

Sarah Mullins, a California transplant to New York City, sets up an apprenticeship with a famous New York novelist whom she admires. Sarah, however, turns out to be a confidence woman of sorts, who begins this relationship to forge a cache of letters purportedly written by the novelist; she plans to sell them to a collector in Hong Kong for $200,000.

But because the collector refuses to come to New York, Sarah must fly to Hong Kong to collect the money. After leaving Hong Kong, she lands in Bangkok for “muddled and emotional reasons.” There she settles into a once elegant but now decaying four-tower apartment complex named the Kingdom. 

At the complex’s pool she meets the mysterious Mali, a British-educated financial assistant. Mali invites Sarah to a “girls’ night out” at a friend’s apartment in the Kingdom. Here she introduces Sarah to Ximena, a Chilean chef at a French restaurant and Natalie, a hotel manager. The ladies are aware that Sarah is maintaining some sort of façade but can’t quite figure her out.

Unlike Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, the protagonist in “Crime and Punishment,” Sarah is not wracked with guilt despite having committed the crime of forgery and theft. If anything, she comes across as plagued with ennui. Her listlessness is puzzling, given that she made such elaborate plans to get the money in the first place. She’s like the dog that chases cars but doesn’t know what to do when it catches one. Her character isn’t particularly appealing, and one wishes that she would be more decisive – even if it’s just committing to something other than just being there. I mean, if you had $200,000 in cash and were living in Southeast Asia, wouldn’t you at least want to travel, buy fancy clothes, and live it up?

The novel’s other characters also have ill-defined backgrounds. Their physical descriptions are somewhat satisfying, but one yearns to know their backstories and add flesh to the bare bones of their existence. Their amorality, however, is never in doubt, including Natalie’s adulterous husband, Roland, who visits local bars looking for pretty girls; Mali’s Japanese lover, Ryo, whose background is never defined; Goi, the scheming apartment-block maid who has a passkey to different units and is not above making a fast buck; and Pop, the Kingdom’s version of a resident handyman, whose innocent veneer falls apart in an unanticipated twist to the narrative’s final scene. 

What really shines is Osborne’s prose in observation and atmosphere: “That night [Sarah] slept badly. From out in the dark, at around three in the morning, there was what sounded like a gunshot, which echoed with an ominous arrogance and then, a moment later, seemed impossible. A gunshot to kill a dog, or a man playing with a gun in his garden; but it could not be either. She lay awake sweating, her pulse rising to the back of her eyes. No siren came to investigate the shot; there was only the wind howling around her half-decayed windows. Unable to go back to sleep, she turned on the lights and went to the second bedroom, where she kept the suitcase filled with cash. She took it out of the closet, laid it flat, and opened it, a ritual of self-reassurance she had been meaning to perform for a while now.”

Osborne, a British novelist who currently lives in Bangkok, paints a vivid picture of the city and its inhabitants. Referred to by some as a modern Graham Greene, Osborne explores the ambivalent natures of his characters against the backdrop of one of the world’s exotic megacities. 

You can almost feel the oppressive heat when the air conditioning in the Kingdom goes out. You can hear the rain as it hits the glass roof of the Kingdom and see the changing evening sky. His verbal paintbrush does more for the city of Bangkok than it does for his characters. But if you’re looking for an escape from the ordinary, “The Glass Kingdom” fits the bill.

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