By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
By John Burdett
Vintage Books, 2003
When Thai police detectives Sonchai Jitpleecheep and Pichai Apiradee are given orders to follow U.S. Marine Sergeant William Bradley around Bangkok, they are not told why.
But after the two witness Bradley being killed by a python inside a bolted-shut Mercedes Benz, learning the “why” behind their orders becomes important — especially after Pichai is also killed shortly after the Marine.
As a devout Buddhist, Sonchai — the son of a former Thai bar girl and an unknown Vietnam War G.I. — is out to avenge his soul brother’s murder. The only help he receives while on his vigilante mission is from FBI Agent Kimberly Jones.
As the pair work to find out who is behind Bradley’s — and as a result, Pichai’s — death, readers are taken around Bangkok.
Burdett does not shy away from showing us the city’s underbelly, including drugs, police corruption, and prostitution. And as Sonchai and Jones delve further into the mystery and get closer to solving it, things only get darker and more sinister.
However, Burdett also balances this darkness through the character of Sonchai. As a Buddhist, the police detective made a vow to remain uncorrupted. And he has kept that vow throughout his career, as he never accepts a bribe. And as the son of a woman who used to work in the city’s red-light districts, he views those currently working in the sex trade as former aunties who looked after him when he was a boy and helped raise him.
Although this is a mystery, “Bangkok 8” is also about relationships and what they mean to us. From Sonchai’s bond with Pichai being so strong he’s compelled to capture and kill his former partner’s murderer, to the new friendship he forms with Agent Jones, to the love between Sonchai and his mother, we see how important these connections can be in shaping who we are.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing
By Madeleine Thien
W.W. Norton & Company, 2016
When she was a young girl, Marie’s father Kai left her and her mother. Twice. Once when he no longer wanted to be a husband or father, and once again when he took his own life — all by the time she was 10.
As Marie and her mother are still dealing with his death, a young woman named Ai-Ming comes to live with them. Ai-Ming is the daughter of Kai’s longtime friend Sparrow, a brilliant composer.
Marie and Ai-Ming form a close friendship and together, they piece together a tale of Marie’s fractured family in present-day Vancouver, B.C. They learn how Kai and Sparrow, along with a violin prodigy named Zhuli, were forced to recreate their artistic and private selves amidst Chinese politics during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and how their fates have lasting consequences.
In this book, Thien weaves together the stories of two generations in China — those who lived through the Cultural Revolution and their children, who grew up to become those students protesting in Tiananmen Square. As Marie and Ai-Ming learn more about their fathers, we learn how they are connected by more than their fathers’ friendship.
Throughout their discoveries, we also see how Marie and Ai-Ming’s friendship grows, which is no small feat as nearly a decade separates the two in age. Through their relationship, Thien shows readers how having a support system can help someone when they are grieving. Together, as they learn about their families, Marie and Ai-Ming are better able to process their fathers’ deaths and come to terms with it.
Thien also gives readers a glimpse into what life in China was like during two very significant periods in the country’s modern history and how it affected people’s everyday lives.
By Janice Y.K. Lee
Penguin Books, 2016
Living in another country besides your own is not easy. But for three American women, that is exactly what they find themselves doing in Lee’s “Expatriates.”
But on top of adjusting to life abroad in Hong Kong, each member of this trio is dealing with their own personal struggles or tragedies.
Not long after a terrible incident, Mercy, a young Korean American who recently graduated from Columbia University, is adrift as she tries to find her purpose in life. As a wealthy housewife, Hilary wishes to have a child because she believes it could save her struggling marriage. And after suffering a great loss, mother-of-three Margaret begins to question her maternal identity.
As each of these three women face their respective demons, their lives cross paths and there may be no more looking back from that.
Lee takes us into the lives of these three women, as they try to find their way out of a sort of holding pattern in the wake of personal difficulties. Like many people, they may try to present a nice life on the surface, but the reality is nowhere near perfect and it is not always pretty. But that is how things are in real life.
In addition, Lee gives readers a glimpse of life as an expat and what it is like to live in a very small and specific community. For someone who has lived in only one country, the idea of living somewhere else may seem fun and exciting. But just as Lee shows how her protagonists’ lives are not perfect, she shows that neither is living as an expat. It comes with its own set of pros and cons, just like everything else.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.