A place like any other

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Set in Thailand, the stories focus on hopes, disappointments and everyday struggles.

Sightseeing; Rattawut Lapcharoensap; Grove Press, $ 12.

IN Sightseeing, a remarkably self-assured debut collection of short stories set in contemporary Thailand, Rattawut Lapcharoensap deconstructs the exotic paradise for what it really is — a place like any other, inhabited by real people living real lives. The epigraph, taken from Simon de la Loubere's 17th century account entitled "A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam", dwells on the supposedly lotus-eating Thai way of life. But in Lapcharoensap's stories, Thailand becomes the setting for the hopes, disappointments and everyday struggles of men and women who labour to make their land a paradise for visiting tourists. Growing pains, the betrayal of friends, the loss of parents, the loneliness of aging — these themes unfold in a terrain ridden with economic, social and cultural fault lines. "You give them history, temples, pagodas, traditional dance, floating markets, seafood curry, tapioca desserts, silk-weaving cooperatives, but all they really want is to ride some hulking grey beast like a bunch of wild men and to pant over girls," says the narrator's mother in "Farangs", the opening story. Although the Thai woman's small motel depends on these leisure-seeking, pleasure-loving foreign tourists, "farangs", the West holds no attraction for her. She lost interest in it years ago, after an American soldier promised to send for her and never did. And so, when her son begins a fragile relationship with an American girl, she tries to warn him against the disappointment that is sure to come.

Fractured landscape

In one story, while refugees come into Bangkok from Cambodia, factories move out to Philippines and Malaysia. One character now carries concrete beams at a construction site for minimum wage; his wife sews panty hose out of a Chinese woman's house. In another story, a crate filled with toys waiting to be shipped to America slips from a malfunctioning crane, falling ten metres and crushing the narrator's father under it. This is a landscape fractured, like any other, by class and ethnic divisions. While families seek a better life for their children, children watch their parents destroy themselves in this desperate search. In the title story, a boy and his mother travel to Koh Lukmak, last of the Andaman Islands. It is a 12-hour train journey and another eight hours by boat, but it is something that they have to do. She is gradually going blind with migraine-induced retinal detachment. This will be their last summer together before her son goes off to vocational college in the north. For mother and son, this is a journey not only to Lukmak, with its beautiful sands and turquoise water, but to a new understanding of themselves, both as Thais and as mother and son. While most narrators in these tender, accomplished stories are young Thai boys; a young girl narrates the beautiful, disturbing novella "Cockfighter". The voices of these young narrators are observant, painfully honest, and achingly young. On the other hand, in "Don't Let Me Die in This Place", we see an elderly, wheelchair-bound American man in Bangkok trying reluctantly to form a relationship with his son's Thai wife and their children. It's a startling change of perspective, but Lapcharoensap's storytelling skills make it work. One evening at a temple fair, watching his son dance with his Thai wife, the father realises how "courageous and worthwhile" their love is, and how proud it makes him. Sightseeing urges us to look at the world again, not in terms of the usual binaries or prejudices, but to regard it afresh.

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