The Glass Kingdom
Lawrence Osborne
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Buy *The Glass Kingdom* by Lawrence Osborne online

The Glass Kingdom
Lawrence Osborne
304 pages
August 2020
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Time and again, Osborne has proved himself the master of setting a domestic miniature within a deep political context while also capturing the topography and ambience of countries gripped by conflict. Escaping to Thailand in 2014, Sarah Mullins is a typical Osborne creation, isolated and world-weary but also critically self-aware. Sarah, on the run with a bucketload of fraudulent cash, is forced to find solace in the Glass Kingdom, a 21-story high-rise apartment complex, the moon reaching high above "the dirty white skyscrapers of Bangkok."

In her new apartment for only a few days, Sarah has met no one apart from her landlady, Mrs. Lim, the eccentric Thai grande dame. As she watches the gardens 15 floors below and their "sluggish fountains," she thinks about each morning. Sarah is in Bangkok purely to make herself invisible for a while, to turn herself into a living ghost in one of the few places where a solitary white woman will be little noticed, sexually or otherwise.

Breezing along with a lie she has prepared in advance, Sarah tells her new friends Mali and Ximena that she's taking an extended leave from her life in New York and her work for April Lavery, a novelist whose books describe the struggles of provincial women whose backgrounds resemble Sarah's. Sarah is drawn to Mali and Ximena, but the girls have their own agendas, willing accomplices in Sarah's efforts to stay under the radar. Mali had an inheritance but spent it all on disillusioning herself through her own pleasures. Ximena enjoys the idea that this "slightly preposterous American girl" with her cultivated persona is "a fluid and practiced liar." Perhaps to her detriment, Sarah thinks that her lie has gone down well. Her confidence rises, and the pressures of life in New York slowly bring her to a boiling point that eventually needs to be released.

Osborne bathes his novel in half-light--the land around the Glass Kingdom and the spirit houses featuring the dead on their thrones. Against the nights of violent weather, the Glass Kingdom battered by rain, the tenants feel discretion and violence. Osborne's "Kingdom" is a honeycomb ruled by a rigid and pervasive order. Sarah can no longer remember why she chose the Kingdom in the first place, though she loves the fact that the building comes from a different age. The small signs of decay are everywhere, reassuring her that here she would be removed from "the world's radar."

The narrative simultaneously maintains an underlying languidness and moves events along. The leisurely impression is conveyed by the seemingly comfortable accommodation that Sarah and the other Westerners have made with Thai culture. Yet Sarah feels trapped by Mali. The past survives as it sometimes does "here as untouchable trees inhabited by spirits." Sarah is a bit cynical and detached emotionally, but this masks her realistic insights into what motivates both herself and those around her.

Osborne's menage--trois stands as a metaphor for the political dynamic in a place full of con artists, grifters and blackmailers, including Sarah's neighbors Roland and Natalie. Natalie is wrenched by the sheer force of Roland's personality. Working at the Marriot, she has carved out an identity of her own; she's also no longer sure how she feels about Roland. The easy affection of the "once-upon-a-time lust had melted away as if in the heat." Mali's offer to launder Sarah's money becomes an unspoken pact. It's impossible to keep secrets inside the porous labyrinth of the Kingdom. It's as if the corridors themselves are conduits of lightning-fast gossip. The maid, Goi, is always listening. She's the only person who has been inside Sarah's apartment other than Mali, Ximena and Natalie. Natalie doesn't seem to need the money, but the same cannot be said of Ximena. Roland represents the shadowy line between the world of respectability and the "coterminous" world of prostitution, while Goi reveals Sarah as an empty clown, "a shadow actor in a drama she had not even created herself."

Osborne's Bangkok is lawless and chaotic, a city in which it's remarkably easy to slip into anonymity. Though the treatment of the Sarah as an American is a bit heavy-handed at times, it's sometimes deserved. Her native naivete is in hindsight partly justified. Osborne always tells a great, exotic story that brings out the complications and enigmas of foreign cultures, even as his heroine in this story seems to find an oblivion that comes far more quickly than she has ever imagined.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2020

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