Sunday 30 November 2014

Jasmine Nights by S.P. Somtow

Jasmine Nights is a coming-of-age novel set in 1963 Thailand. It’s the (first-person narrated) story of Little Frog / Justin, a 12-year-old boy with a very rich family, living in their own private Eden - a fenced estate in the middle of a city, connected by road and canals.

Justin speaks and thinks English, he has an English breakfast every morning, and even though he now understands Thai, he chooses to keep that to himself. He’s spent the last few years playing by himself in an abandoned house on the estate, perusing the library, reading Greek (and other) classics, developing a very posh and wordy sense of self. One might describe him as precocious, I guess, but he is quite different from other literary precocious-child narrators (T.S. Spivet, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close): Little Frog is not actually annoying. He feels genuine and authentic: he might have a big vocabulary and an amusingly grown up demeanour, but he's utterly convincing as a child throughout. 

One day, he discovers that he has not been alone - his great grandmother lives in the house he thought abandoned, and has observed him. She encourages him to start playing with other children, to come out of his shell and become socialised with his contemporaries...

The novel starts in a somewhat clunky way, as our narrator recalls events in a series of snapshots, like polaroids. Fortunately, the narrative soon becomes more fluid and engaging. It is a story touching on race and racism, finding out about sex, Thailand and the periphery of the Vietnam War, different social classes, but above all else, it is the story of a somewhat lonely boy becoming slightly less lonely and growing up a bit. Fortunately, it is also a very funny novel, so all the serious issues do not weigh it down into something too worthy and sincere for its own good.

In fact, if I had to think of any other novel matching this one for its mixture of warmth, humour, and issue-tackling, it's To Kill a Mockingbird that springs to mind. Jasmine Nights is that rare thing – a novel on a par with To Kill a Mockingbird, with the added benefit of being set in a place and culture somewhat less familiar to Western readers.

Very enjoyable, very funny, very smart, and with a warmth about it that makes it a joyful read.

Rating: 4/5

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