A Woman Of Bangkok

Today I read A Woman Of Bangkok, the story of a young Englishman in Thailand, fresh off the boat and all too soon obsessed by a bar girl. It’s 61 years old, which is the most disconcerting thing; there’s not much in it that wouldn’t withstand a trip to the 21st century. 

The protagonist, Reginald Joyce, is apparently thinly veiled autobiography: how else do we understand a discordant back story of speedway and a vicar for a father? He travels to Bangkok in what now seems an insanely hard journey, flying Heathrow-Geneva-Cairo-Karachi-Bangkok, landing up at an airport I sat hungover in back in 2013. Nothing ever changes. 

There are a series of sexual (mis) adventures, far more explicit than I’d expected from a book from the 1950s, before he meets, and is infatuated by, the titular woman of Bangkok. And thus ends the first section. 

The second third of the book, from her perspective, is much less satisfying (is it just that I have less empathy for a Thai woman than an Englishman?) but the final third, a headlong rush to disaster that reads at times too implausibly not to be based on fact, is gripping, even as you watch an inexorable slide towards disaster. 

The lingo is well done; badly spoken English hasn’t changed in half a century and Reynolds has a good ear for transcribing it. Or he and I are just awful people. What I’m not sure of is whether the whole thing is just an exercise in Siamese Orientalism, or if it’s that be captured the naivete of the young man too perfectly. Certainly the person writing the blurb is rather naive, talking of the Woman of Bangkok as amoral, when she has a pretty clear moral structure (just not one that fits with the “hero”‘s, or any other white guy in Bangkok with ready cash and loose morals.

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