Kingdom of Make-Believe: A Novel of Thailand

by Dean Barrett

Published by Village East Books

272 pages, 1999


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Seamy Kingdom

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

 

Sharp, often poetic and pleasantly twisted, Kingdom of Make-Believe is a tautly-written fictional tour of Thailand. From the bright and happy spot on all the tourist maps, to an underbelly as seamy as anything from recent fiction, author Dean Barrett has woven a compelling and believable tale about a country he knows well.

This isn't Barrett's first voyage into fictional Asia. He is the author of two other novels set in that part of the world: Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior and Hangman's Point. Both Barrett and Kingdom of Make-Believe 's main character Brian Mason spent time in Thailand as linguists during the Vietnam War.

In the novel, Mason is a New York-based editor just contemplating a series of books that will force a Thai visit when he receives a letter requesting help from his brother's Thai widow. Suntharee was the woman that both brothers fell in love with, but who had chosen brother Paul. Not long after their marriage, Paul was killed in action and Brian left Thailand and all of the painful memories behind.

Most of the story takes place in Thailand in 1988, almost 20 years after the loss of both Brian's brother and his love. He is taken aback at the changes that time has wrought to the place whose memory he's cherished.

Brian reflected on the changes to the city he had first known as a young man and wondered when Bangkok had finally surrendered its soul not, like Ayudhya, to Burmese warriors on elephant-back, but to the spirit-killing demands of modern commercialism. Perhaps that moment when the first luxurious, five-star hotel raised its roof above the city's skyline, higher than any temple's tall, tapering chedi containing royal ashes. Or that moment when a building's location -- decided by a board of directors -- soared higher than any whose location had been determined by the route of a white elephant, the edict of a king, the advice of a fortune teller or the dream of a venerable monk.

Several threads carry the story to its satisfying conclusion. First of all, on his arrival in Thailand, it turns out it's not Suntharee who has written to Brian for help, but her daughter from her first marriage, Nalin. The young woman, now 24, has become mysteriously estranged from her parent, has dropped out of school and is living in Bangkok and working in a seedy bar called the Horny Tiger. Neither mother nor daughter will tell Brian just what has caused this dramatic turn, though both mother and daughter seem determined that he is the one to right it.

Both the Horny Tiger and Mason's own past associations with Thailand provide for the introduction of some fairly colorful characters. A nightclub manager with good intentions and bad connections; the nightclub's owner, Bob Donnelly, who was in the service with both Mason brothers and there's even a smattering of Golden Triangle drug types who spend much of the book deep in machinations that include the most unlikely of candidates.

Of course, at the center of all of this is Brian Mason himself. Mid-career, mid-life and between marriages, Mason knows he is emotionally adrift, even while he gives the appearance of someone completely in control. While the story lines spin to their various conclusions, we watch Mason learn his lessons and even take some lumps. While the character is sometimes exasperating (you occasionally just want to shake him and tell him to open his eyes and see the obvious), he is ultimately likable. Despite a bit of aimless thrashing, he's a Good Guy and one that's pleasant to spend this book with.

Barrett's prose is spare, but his images are rich: a winning combination. He manages to bring us lush snapshots laced with emotion. It's a trick not every writer can pull off but Barrett manages it handily.

In the restaurant setting, she had successfully -- at least on the surface -- put her emotional upheaval behind her. She had collected herself admirably and, except for the subject of why she had run away from home, she discussed events with perfect calm. She smoked Brian's Salems but only infrequently inhaled. She poured hot Thai chilies on her food as if they were merely sugar over strawberries, and drank several glasses of iced tea.

As with any complex tale, author Barrett has taken a risk with all of these characters and plots within plots within plots, but he does it elegantly. His obvious intimate knowledge of Thailand combined with a very considerable writing talent make Kingdom of Make-Believe a tough book to put down. | August 1999

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Blue Murder, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.