Aprivileged Westerner arrives in a foreign country – for a jaunt or a holiday or to escape the past. Through a naive or arrogant disregard for the indigenous culture, he or (just as often) she runs into serious trouble, implicated in a death for which, eventually, a debt must be paid. The setting is luxurious, the lifestyle hedonistic, the climate oppressively hot. Prodigious amounts of alcohol are consumed. As events accelerate towards a violent finale, the reader is kept guessing. How severe will the consequences be for the interloper? Which will prevail, revenge or forgiveness?
Four of the novels Lawrence Osborne has published over the last decade – The Forgiven (2012), Hunters in the Dark (2015), Beautiful Animals (2017) and The Glass Kingdom (2020) – follow this pattern, with a fifth, The Ballad of a Small Player (2014), that varies it by skipping the violence, if not the death to which the Western character’s vices have contributed. It’s a winning formula that’s saved from being formulaic by the ‘personal neurosis’, in Osborne’s words, that underlies it: a guilt-ridden exploration of the clash between cosmopolitanism and rootedness, between the wealthy who wander and the poor who belong.
Osborne was born in Britain but is better known in the US, where he worked as a journalist, mostly writing travel pieces, before concentrating on fiction. He has spent most of his adult life outside the UK (in Poland, Italy, France, Morocco, Mexico, Turkey and Thailand), which may explain why he has been called a contemporary Graham Greene, an epithet which does him few favours, since his prose has little in common with Greene’s and the moral issues that preoccupy him have nothing to do with Catholicism. His novels include all the props associated with thrillers: guns, heists, bribes, spiked drinks, assumed identities, ghostly visitations and suitcases stuffed with banknotes. But the plot is only a fraction of the story. These are novels about place, with a fanatical immersion in everything that defines a place (terrain, weather, architecture, traffic, food, noise, smell), an immersion reproachful of those, whether colonisers, expats, sex tourists or ‘beg-packers’, who don’t make the effort to observe and engage.
‘Why did so few people have the gift of travel,’ he asks in The Forgiven, ‘of subtle displacement and simple curiosity? Which was, in the end, merely a question of imagination. Try imagining where you are, and not lumbering around with your festering discomforts and dissatisfactions.’ Sarah Talbot Jennings, the young Californian whose arrival in Bangkok opens The Glass Kingdom, can’t be lacking in imagination or she wouldn’t have made $200,000 by forging letters under the name April Laverty – the famous novelist she once worked for in New York. But Sarah has little interest in exploring ‘the money-laundering capital of the world’: cocooned in an upmarket apartment complex called the Kingdom, with her loot hidden in a wardrobe, she’s lying low and hoping her Lee Israel-style scam won’t come to light. Within days solitude proves impossible. While swimming in the pool reserved for residents, she’s taken up by the pushy but enigmatic Mali and invited to a drink, dope and gambling session with two other women: Natalie, who’s married, British and has a job at a hotel; and the Chilean-born Ximena, who works in an upmarket restaurant. The three women are farangs – foreigners – just as much as Sarah is; even Mali is only half-Thai. Or so it seems. Mali’s affairs with rich Japanese businessmen are cynically acquisitive, though Ximena sees no harm in that: ‘Who said anything about love? … You just get what you need, don’t you?’ With no love interest of her own to disclose, Sarah entertains her new acquaintances by fabricating a colourful past. It doesn’t fit her wan neutrality and makes them all the more suspicious of her.
‘I am always curious as to how a person leaves behind a homeland and adopts another,’ Osborne writes in his travel book Bangkok Days (2009), describing the city, and Thailand in general, ‘as a place of exile that sometimes fosters a taste for self-invention’. It’s now his home but when he first turned up there in the 1990s it was to drink and have adventures (which included being picked up by a middle-aged Japanese woman, going back to her hotel room for sex and stealing money from her handbag), as well as getting his teeth done on the cheap. Bangkok Days offered a low-rent, ground-level view of the city whereas his new novel is set in the affluent heights of the Kingdom, ‘a refuge, a prison, a fantasy and a luxury living machine all at once’. Built in the 1990s, but now in a state of gentle decay, the Kingdom affords its gated residents (the wealthiest of whom live on the upper storeys of its four towers) the illusion of privacy. But the medium of the Kingdom is glass and people who live in glass houses are open to inspection, and more. The landings allow you to peer into your neighbours’ apartments. In this ‘paradise of enforced mental idleness’, where day jobs are a sideline, you spend your time prying into other people’s affairs or worrying how much they know about yours. Sarah thinks she’s being spied on by a mystery schoolgirl. A clairvoyant blind woman and the sound of a piano in the empty flat above unsettle her further. Even as she’s talked into employing Natalie’s live-in maid, Goi, as a cleaner, she’s aware it’s a bad idea: in the Kingdom the maids know everything.
A repeated tic or trick in Osborne’s fiction is to start from the point of view of a single character, in this case Sarah, then switch perspective, so that the one who sees, or fails to see, is exposed to the scrutiny of others. What might be narrative clumsiness, a violation of rules, has a political or post-imperial subtext: the close third person is no longer reserved for the privileged Westerner; the subservient rise up to claim their representative rights, among them a desert fossil-picker in The Forgiven, a Cambodian policeman in Hunters in the Dark and a Syrian refugee in Beautiful Animals. They may be poor but they’re not ‘minor’ – nor are they sentimentalised. However different their belief systems, they’re no less worldly than the Westerners whose money they covet. Goi in The Glass Kingdom feels a ‘little sorry’ for her employers: ‘They couldn’t speak properly, they knew nothing about real food and were always unhappy in petty and enigmatic ways.’ But she also resents them having more wealth than they deserve. The Kingdom’s caretaker, gatekeeper and trusted dogsbody, Pop, feels the same way: ‘A lifetime of poverty, odd jobs, and three failed marriages had left him thirsty for vindication and a spectacular reward dropped from the heavens.’
Money, as so often in Osborne’s fiction, is the narrative hinge. The threat to Sarah from outside (will a US detective agency track her down?) is overtaken by the danger close at hand (will the scammer herself be scammed?). As well as Pop and Goi, who spy and snoop, there’s Mali, whose impositions – at first just small favours – reach a pitch when she appears one night in a bloody nightgown, asking Sarah to give her refuge while the body of her Japanese lover (whom she has murdered with a jade ashtray during a violent row) is secretly removed from her flat. And will she promise to tell no one what has happened? Sarah’s in a bind. Informing the police will mean being interrogated, and her own crimes could come to light. But covering for Mali puts her at risk. She decides to take the risk; she even takes the bloody nightgown. When a blackmail note arrives, demanding that Sarah put half her money in a rucksack and deliver it to a designated place at night, it’s clear she has made the wrong choice. Somebody knows what she has done.
It’s standard for Scandi-noir TV dramas to feature a scene in which the heroine, often a cop, enters a deserted building alone at night. Sarah’s surrender of $100,000 might not have the same unbearable tension but it does prompt similar frustration: Why do it, Sarah, when you could just book a flight somewhere and leave Bangkok with your money intact? It’s a desperately weak moment in the plot. But without it we wouldn’t be drawn into the mystery of who, among several candidates, the blackmailer might be. And Sarah’s not the kind of heroine readers root for – few of Osborne’s protagonists are. Relatability doesn’t interest him. We warm to his characters as little as they warm to one another. He revels in their flaws (David, in The Forgiven, whose accidental but culpable killing of a young Arab drives the plot, is thrillingly odious) and keeps them at a distance. Even the underdogs are too devious and grasping to be likeable. They know to be pak-wan, that is to flatter their infidel employers, but they’re seething with envy and rage. ‘It was a system of mutual recrimination based on racial resentments that were mysterious even to the people harbouring them. It all came down to money … Money made people into natural paranoiacs.’
The paranoia within the Kingdom is mirrored by the unrest outside: strikes, curfews, power outages, student protests, pipe bombs, gunshots, the military massing in the wings. Old Mrs Lim, sole owner of the Kingdom since her husband’s recent death, has seen too many coups over the years to worry about this one, and encourages her residents to relax: ‘Even if things got out of hand they could probably watch from their balconies, drinks in hand.’ For a while, the Americans, Europeans, Chinese and Arabs turn a blind eye: ‘None of them had any inkling of the society around them, and if they had they would have cared even less than they already did. They were there for medical procedures, plastic surgery, mall shopping, sex and a moment’s escape from the surveillance of Allah’s terrestrial enforcers.’ But as the ‘subtle hysteria’ in the city intensifies, tourists stop coming and the rich move their money abroad. The residents of the Kingdom begin to leave too: ‘It’s like the way dogs know when a tsunami is about to hit. Only the dumb humans stay on.’
The dumbest of all is Sarah, whose fraudster’s mental agility has long since deserted her and who lingers among the ruins. Plausibility might require her to be gone, but if she went we’d be denied the Ballardian ending, as the forces of darkness move into the Kingdom. They come in animal form – dogs, giant bats, moths, tree frogs, monitor lizards – but to Sarah, losing her grip or going native, they’re ghosts, visitors from the afterlife who, now the power has been cut, know that their time has come again. To put it more plainly, as she does in a calmer moment: ‘The outer world of insects, riots and disorder was openly penetrating the inner world of elevators, generators, privacy and locks.’
Osborne’s novels are lavishly filmic (several have been optioned and a film version of The Forgiven is in production). They’re also disruptive, with wavering chronology and chunks of history sometimes inserted mid-scene. The disruptions seem apt, mirroring the volatility of the places where they’re set and the economic incongruities they are designed to expose. In the closing pages of The Glass Kingdom, Pop invites Sarah to share a curry and bottle of yadong with him. They sit in the garden by a brazier, under a ‘dull, half-cloudy moon’, the last two occupants of a fallen paradise. ‘You are a remarkable girl,’ he tells her, and for a moment there’s a hint of redemption, a peaceful coming together of East and West. But everything in Osborne’s fiction points to a bleaker conclusion. His fiction insists that the ability to move easily between countries has done nothing to improve mutual understanding; that the gap between rich and poor is still too wide; that the question posed at the end of A Passage to India – ‘Why can’t we be friends now? It’s what I want. It’s what you want’– still gets the same answer: ‘No, not yet. No, not here.’