Critique by Richard Ayres (Editor and Author)
This is a very ambitious novel. It is multi-layered, having a variety of themes, a complex web of plots and sub-plots with a wealth of characters, and is set in strongly contrasting locations. The narrative is original, even experimental, for the narrative voice constantly shifts from First Person to Objective Omniscient. This device is effective in maintaining pace and interest. The narrative style is simple but engaging, and the passages of dialogue impressively handled.
Overall, the author goes a long way towards achieving the ambition that he has set himself.
The first chapters
The first chapters of a novel are of crucial importance in capturing the attention and interest of the reader. As Part 1 of this novel is characterised by very short chapters, the first ten will be considered here.
Chapter 1, written in the 1st Person, is set on a beach in Thailand, where the narrator starts to experience disturbing, hallucinatory images. The chapter is written in an informal, almost ‘chatty’ style which serves to engage the reader, and when it is revealed that the narrator was in fact hallucinating and has woken in a Thai prison, this provides a ‘hook’ to encourage the reader to turn the page and discover what has happened.
Chapters 2 & 3, also written in the 1st person, give a graphic account of what the narrator is experiencing in gaol. Vivid imagery is used to describe the squalor of the surroundings, the abusive guards, and drug taking. The reader remains fully engaged.
Chapter 4 comes as a surprise to the reader. Not only is it set in an entirely different place (probably the UK, given that one of the characters is reading The Times) but is written from an Objective Omniscient viewpoint – i.e the action is presented as though it were being filmed. There is no attempt to convey, comment on, or interpret the characters’ thoughts or feelings: all that the reader learns is inferred from the characters words and deeds. This serves to intrigue the reader – who are Louise and Stan? And who is ‘the ‘Michael’ to whom they refer? The reader suspects that he might be the narrator of the first three chapters, but this is not made clear – a good device to ensure continued reader engagement.
Chapters 5 and 6 revert to a 1st person account of the narrator’s (whom we assume might be Michael) experiences in gaol, and there are further vivid descriptions of the horrors of prison life, including the rats, the other inmates, homosexual encounters, defecation, and an attempted sexual assault. (By the end of these chapters the reader has ‘got the message’ of what prison life is like. The chapter also introduces John, an Australian fellow-prisoner, who recommends Buddhist meditation as a way of coping – is this significant for later events, the reader wonders?
Chapter 7 shifts the focus to John. What starts as a conversation with Michael (the dialogue is very realistic) written from Michael’s 1st person perspective, shifts to a retrospective narrative account (unfinished) of John’s back-story, before reverting to the present at the end of the chapter. These changes of perspective and time are skilfully handled. The reader is led to assume that John will be an important character in the story.
Chapters 8, 9 &10 shifts the focus back to Michael. The start of his back-story is in pure narrative form, but contains passages of dialogue between him and three new characters, Bee, Mon, and Mia. The reader surmises that these new characters are probably of great significance to the story both in the past (ie. why Michael is in gaol) and for the future development of the plot. The dialogue is realistic and well crafted. The latent eroticism in the scene with Mia is skilfully handled, and much more engaging than some of the explicit sex scenes which occur later in the novel.
Overall, the first chapters are skilfully written, engage the reader, and give him/her incentive to read on.
There are three interweaving major plot lines. The first has Michael as its focus – his imprisonment, the reasons for his imprisonment (his back-story), his unwillingness to buy his way out of imprisonment, his relationship with John. The second has Stan and Nigel as its focus – their ‘adventures’ in Thailand in their attempts to free Michael, their involvement with characters who formed part of Michael’s back-story (Mon, Bee, Mia, Nincotte, Puku etc), their involvement with Mr Pamon, and Nigel’s relationship with Pang. The third, closely interweaving with the second, has Harvey and Bo as its focus, and their own agenda for securing Michael’s release.
The gradual revelation of the events leading up to Michael’s imprisonment as uncovered by the investigations of Stan, Nigel and Harvey, and the events that occur in the course of their investigations, add up to a highly complex and ingenious story, adroitly told, and which keep the reader fully engaged throughout the novel.
Overall, the plots are well constructed and believable.
This is far from being merely a story about wrongful imprisonment and the adventures of those engaged in trying to secure Michael’s release. It has a variety of themes, all of which are explored through the narrative and dialogue, and the author is to be congratulated in not ‘preaching’ the themes to the reader. The themes include –
Cultural differences between the Thai community and the European visitors, and the problems that result from this.
The seedy world of bars, whore-houses and massage parlours, the lives lived by those who inhabit them and the dangers posed to those who frequent them.
The Thai prison system and police corruption.
The exploration of relationships, the way they develop and the way they can fragment.
It has already been mentioned that throughout the novel the narrative voice constantly shifts between First Person (Michael’s voice) and Objective Omniscient. This is a very original device, and is in most cases used very successfully. The First Person voice enables the reader to ‘get into the head’ of Michael, to learn his fears, hopes and feelings for others, something that is essential to allow the reader to identify and empathise with the character. The Authorial Omniscient voice is used to drive the story forward. The juxtaposition of the two results in a novel that is both thoughtful and exciting.
Setting and Description
The story is set in a variety of places – in prison, in hotel rooms, in a hospital, in bars and whorehouses, and in the streets of Bangkok. The constantly shifting scenes are atmospheric and add variety to the narrative. The descriptions of the various locations are the more effective for not being over-described: short descriptive passages are integrated into both action scenes and passages of dialogue, which ensures that the pace of the story is maintained and as well as the constantly developing interaction between the various characters. Thus reader interest in places, plot, and character development is maintained throughout.
Some settings, and the descriptive passages and conversations contained within them, are both moving and humorous – for example. Part 2 Chapter 28, Nigel coping with staying at Pang’s house, a sensitive but amusing evocation of cultural differences.
There are 24 characters in the novel who have ‘speaking parts’. The wealth of characters is Dickensian in its scope and adds depth to the story. When a character is first encountered in a scene where he/she has a ‘speaking part’ the reader is able to identify with him/her and has no problem in identifying him/her or his/her role.
Obviously the most fully-developed character is that of Michael, for only he has an ‘inner voice’ through which we learn his feelings, hopes, dreams, fears and regrets. He is not a ‘static’ character, for his personality develops through the book. His determination not to buy his way out of his predicament, and his eventual acceptance that this might be the only way forward, is sensitively portrayed, and the reader develops a strong identification and empathy with him. The depiction of his relationship with his father and grandfather, and his growing affection for John is a strong evocation of the effect of adversity on personality.
All the other characters are described from the Objective Omniscient viewpoint, but this does not result in their being two-dimensional. The skilful use of dialogue and the description of their action and reactions to events and their relationship to other characters results in the reader becoming fully engaged with them and aware of their feelings. This is one of the major strengths of the novel: it is akin to watching good actors in a film where the thoughts and feelings of the characters they portray are evident from their facial expressions, their actions, and the lines they speak.
The use of dialogue is another strength of the novel. There is a lot of it, but it is always relevant to the plot and helps drive the story forward. It is very realistic, unstilted, reflects the emotions of the speakers and their feelings for each other, and on occasion can be amusing. Particularly effective are the exchanges between Michael and John, Nigel and Pang, Nigel and Stan, Harvey and Bo. The author is to be congratulated on avoiding unnecessary attributions (Stan said, John said etc) when a conversation is between two people and where it is obvious from the context who is speaking.
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