Thailand reading 2
In November I had a lovely holiday to Malaysia (see my blog on Singapore and Malaysia holiday reading) and when I got home I bought The Malayan Trilogy by Anthony Burgess and ended up reading it when I was back in south-east Asia in March, this time in Thailand on the same pilates retreat I did last year (see my blog Thailand reading). The trilogy is made up of: ‘Time for a Tiger’, ‘Enemy in the Blanket’ and Beds in the East’ and was the first time I read a novel by Anthony Burgess so I didn’t know what to expect. It was an interesting take on ex-pat life in Malaysia at the end of colonial rule.
It centres on the life of the English schoolteacher Victor Crabbe and his second wife Fenella and their troubled marriage in a fictional town where it’s clear to all that the days of the British are numbered. It is filled with affairs, dangerous drives through a jungle full of insurgents that might be about to shoot at you and awful colleagues who disagree on how to discipline the Malaysian boys at the school. Life is not a happy one for Victor, who has never got over the tragic death of his first wife.
Victor and Fenella then get posted across Malaysia and their arrival at the tiny airport does not bode well for their new life there with a lot of drunk ex-pats who are bored and looking for some excitement. I won’t spoil the fantastic twist at the end or tell you what happens to Victor and Fenella, but suffice to say that I didn’t see it coming and it was worth the wait. The characterisation is fantastic. So much so though, that for me it didn’t really conjure up the place in the way I had expected and I was left having to paint my own picture of the towns, villages and landscape of the time.
I also read Strumpet City by James Plunkett, which was recommended to me by the guide on the Big Red Bus tour of Dublin when I was there last February (see my blog on Dublin reading) and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. It is a really fantastic book and one I would highly recommend. It is set between 1907 and 1914 and its drama culminates at the 1913 Dublin Lock-out, the most major industrial dispute in Irish history.
The cast of characters is large and they are all beautifully drawn and their human frailties honestly exposed. There is of course a group of priests, one struggling with alcoholism and another with trying to hide his disgust at the poverty of the people he has chosen to serve. There is also the rich older couple with no children, living off the profits of slum tenements. A maid who gives up her job to go and marry the man she loves and uncomplainingly tries to make do with what little she has whilst helping her neighbours who have less. And an industrialist who finds himself sympathising with the plight of those on strike. The novel does not romanticise hard-working people but shows the dignity and pride of carving out a meaningful life in the most difficult of circumstances. The extreme poverty it matter-of-factly describes is horrendous and the incredibly moving death of one of the characters alone in squalor with his dog, starving and unable to go for help will stay with me.
At the end of the book the characters are seemingly defeated by the failure of the Dublin Lock-Out to get their employers to meet their demands. They are then innocently left with no idea what is to come just two years later as the Easter Rising and the British response to it paves the way for an independent Ireland.