In Lily Tuck's Siam
, the year is 1967 and 25-year-old Claire has come to Bangkok with her brand-new husband, a military advisor. When they first met, James had described Thailand as "not a bad place to live. Everyone's so friendly, everyone's always smiling. And you should see my house--hot and cold running servants, a pool, a garden..." But upon arrival in this exotic locale--which her guidebook, too, extols as the "Venice of the East"--Claire discovers dead dogs floating in the canals, green slime growing on the surface of the pool, and the natives polite but distant. The one person she feels an instant bond with is Jim Thompson, an American silk entrepreneur she encounters at a party. But immediately afterward, Thompson disappears during a trip to the Cameron Highlands, and Claire becomes obsessed with discovering what happened to him.
Siam is a work of fiction. Jim Thompson, however, was an actual person whose disappearance in Thailand has never been solved. Tuck uses this real-life mystery to illuminate her fictional characters' relationships and motivations. It's clear from the first chapter that Claire is a young woman without a solid sense of self. She is swept quite literally off her feet and into bed within hours of first meeting James, and a good deal of what happens to her from that point on seems to occur without her active participation or consent:
Several times a day Claire raised her skirt, dropped her pants. Her fingers, too, learned to unzip, to unbutton with the swiftness and skill of a lacemaker. It was not how Claire had imagined it, but there was hardly time for anything else.
Though she tries hard to be a "good guest" in Thailand, attempting to learn the language and history of her new home, she is never truly at ease among the people. Claire's fixation on the fate of a man she met only once grows in direct proportion to her feelings of loneliness and alienation. Meanwhile, America's escalating role in the Vietnam War parallels her increasing suspicion of everyone around her, even her husband--and soon the conditions are ripe for tragedy. Tuck weaves this intricate web of fact and fiction, reality and delusion, with an assured hand and prose that seems simpler than it actually is. She captures to perfection the disorientation of strangers in a strange land, the insularity of expatriate communities, and the gulf that yawns between privileged foreigners and the people they live among. Siam
, then, is both a compelling drama and a profound meditation on the political and the personal. --Sheila Bright
From Publishers Weekly
Probing the futility of good intentions and the pitfalls of cultural miscommunication, this assured and absorbing third novel by Tuck (The Woman Who Walked on Water) opens on March 9, 1967, the day the U.S. starts bombing North Vietnam from bases in Thailand. Claire, a 25-year-old Boston bride, arrives in Bangkok with her husband, James, an American engineer who builds runways in Nakhon Phanom, in northeast Thailand, for the American bombers. James's weekly trips to supervise construction leave his young, conspicuously blonde wife to fend for herself, and Claire discovers almost immediately that the luxurious lifestyle James described has an unpleasant underside. The heat is unrelenting; their pool is covered with green slime; the servants wash in a sewage-filled canal; hot peppers make most food indigestible to her. Unlike the few other American wives she meets, Claire is driven to question her surroundings, but the information she garners in hours of research at the local British library, through her daily language classes and on shopping excursions around the city is even more disturbing. Snubbed by Thai acquaintances when she tries to discuss the political situation, she turns to her husband, but insensitive James treats her as little more than a sexual object. Meanwhile, Claire becomes obsessed with legendary American entrepreneur Jim Thompson, who has disappeared while on a trip to the Highlands. Though she has met him only once, Thompson typifies to Claire all the mysterious events that seem to be going on just outside her circle of understanding. As the political and cultural climate in Bangkok grows increasingly oppressive, Claire begins to lose touch with reality, and her feverish imaginings precipitate tragedy. Tuck uses words with economy, evoking the lush locale and mysterious culture of Thailand with precise details and sensory images, and effectively contrasting the crisp, arrogant attitude of the American colony with the polite if evasive conduct of the Thai population. Her vivid, unromanticized picture of Bangkok in the late '60s is a fitting backdrop for a haunting story about the end of innocence. (Nov.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.