August 24, 2020
As I’d written in 2017, in a review of his novel Beautiful Animals, Lawrence Osborne’s characters tend to stumble into things: whether as a result of an accident, as in The Forgiven, or by winning big at the roulette table, as in Hunters in the Dark: as if they had stepped into the intersection of opportunity and desire. What they heretofore envisaged only nebulously, something that couldn’t be put into words, now possessed a vocabulary and the will to act upon it. Like so many of Lawrence Osborne’s characters, Sarah Mullins, late of New York City and now a fugitive from the law, is a Westerner stuck in the quicksand of an alien culture she can’t even begin to comprehend; and like Robert Grieve, in Osborne’s earlier novel, Hunters in the Dark, she has travelled there to reinvent herself. Or maybe just to lose herself. Because, like so many protagonists in Osborne’s work, she has stepped over the bounds of the light of day and found treasures in the night, and one day someone might come knocking at her door.
She has just moved into her seven-room apartment in the Bangkok complex known as the Kingdom, with its four glass towers, each of twenty-one floors, in a city with its “decay that held a dark human nectar inside it.” Impressive in its description, the place is running down fast, just like the others in the city, “sinking into their own twilight.” And, as with Elsinore castle in Hamlet, nearly all the action is set within its walls. The claustrophobia, the ability to see into other people’s rooms and habits in this world of glass, works on the reader to evoke a sense of foreboding. Something’s coming; something bad.
Back in New York Sarah had worked her way into the life of an elderly novelist, whose archives—especially her letters—were much in demand by collectors. It’s when Sarah is sent to Hong Kong to carry out the sale of them that she also sells the forgeries she had learned to master. Earning herself an extra $200,000 that no one, especially her aged employer, could have noticed, she changes her appearance, and now Sarah Mullins has become Sarah Talbot Jennings, a stranger in a strange land with a large haul of very dirty money in her closet. And it’s the hiding that generally catches up with you in the end.
When the floods resume and the power ebbs in and out in this hot and rainy season, as corruption and unrest, like the tide, laps up against the walls, the wealthier tenants begin to flee the Kingdom, only to be replaced by the bats that engage in bat-banter as they hang from the atrium, and the heavy-breathing pariah dogs that roam the corridors alongside the more discreet spirits of the dead. Before then Sarah had fallen in with three other foreign women who live in the Kingdom, farangs, as they’re known there: Mali, possibly Eurasian and an executive assistant; Ximena, a chef from Chile working at a nearby restaurant; and Natalie, employed at a nearby Marriot hotel and married to Roland. They smoke ganja; they drink; they play poker. And soon enough Mali has guessed that Sarah has a great deal of money that needs laundering, and Mali knows just how to do it. Sarah is about to be swallowed by a culture she barely comprehends, and people there who are better practiced in the arts of the higher, more understated crimes such as thievery and blackmail.
Lawrence Osborne’s observational skills—always a strong point with him—are at their finest here. The Kingdom is somehow alive, its walls always listening, its windows forever watching. And, as in his earlier novels, his innate grasp of expat life is fertile ground for The Glass Kingdom: a world of spirits, of the dead, of the martyred and the murdered and the drowned, ruled by a cold and implacable karma always watching and waiting, like the monitor lizards that watch in silence, waiting to make their move.