Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap: A review

March 22, 2005 | 3 min read

coverIt’s a funny thing about expectations. They form so quickly, and often just as quickly, get shattered. Or else you’re forced to re-evaluate, and scale down those expectations to something more realistic. And you have to do it all in lightning speed so that, before the actual experience is over, you’ve salvaged some sort of enjoyment.

But then every once in a while, on that rarest of occasions, the opposite happens. You pick up a newspaper, say, and read a glowing review of a young author’s first collection of short stories. Then you notice that he’s giving a reading in your very town four days later. The day comes and, well, you slink out of work early to get to the reading on time. Those expectations are beginning.

You’re there at the reading and it goes off smoothly. The story he reads is engaging. Already you’re thinking “could they all be this good?”. Then during the break you chat with him and guess what – he’s gracious and affable – a truly likeable guy. Completely unspoiled.

You take your signed book home. Part of your brain is already working double-time to counteract the hype. At the first hint of trouble, it’s ready to lower those expectations. Part of your brain is buoyed by the reading and the chat. The rest of your brain is simply confused and, well, a little bit annoyed that you haven’t cracked the spine yet.

So you do. And as you enter the world of Thai-American author Rattawut Lapcharoensap, as he leads you deftly through the pages of Sightseeing, you begin to realize something. You begin to realize that he’s done it. He’s given you seven small perfect stories. Each one as transfixing as the last. And yet each one remarkably different from the last. And still yet somehow each one the product of the same, distinctive voice. You realize that he’s done it.

“Farangs” is a story of a half-Thai, half-American teen, working with his mother at a hotel in Thailand, and his courtship of an American tourist. You meet tourists who (as tourists tend to do) behave at their worst, their basest. There’s a simmering hostility suggested between the locals and the farangs, and the first-person narration of this story (of all the stories) throws you right in the thick of it. There is an immediacy to the narrative. Very quickly you become part of the characters’ day-to-day lives.

“At The Cafe Lovely”, where you meet a Bangkok family and again you’re plunged into their domestic life, in the author’s powerful and poignant prose you can see, even smell, the place. Kitchens become alive. (Your craving for Thai food will be insatiable while you’re reading these stories). You also see youthful rituals played out. And you’ll find that the unfamiliar is suddenly not all that unfamiliar.

“Draft Day” places you in those tense hours leading up to the lottery to decide which young Thai youths will be sent into the army and which ones will be spared. The narrator’s family’s wealth and status suggests a possible reprieve but his best friend is not as certain of his fate, a brother having already been damaged by his time in the service. And Draft Day turns into a family affair. Domesticity leaves the kitchen and transplants itself in the waiting room.

“Sightseeing”, perhaps at once the most heartbreaking and the most exhilarating of all the stories, finds the narrator and his mother becoming farangs themselves as they travel to a remote part of Thailand.

“Priscilla the Cambodian” reveals some long-held preconceptions among Thai and Cambodian families, and how these feelings are more entrenched in the older generations than the young. This was the story you heard at the reading even though, five minutes before the end, you became a reader’s worst nightmare when you began coughing and wheezing uncontrollably. You tried to contain it. You failed.

“Don’t Let Me Die In This Place.” A wheelchair-bound American grandfather’s tale of life with his son and Thai daughter-in-law in Thailand, seeing his “mongrel” grandchildren for the first time. Trying to see himself in them. This isn’t an exotic story. None of these are. The author places you in the center of their lives. Right into their normalness.

And, finally, “Cockfighter,” the novella which caps the collection. Again placing you within a drama full of dreams and economic desperation, honor and dignity. A tale of that blurry line between vengeance and justice. You witness, first hand, the arc of a family crisis, all told from the point of view of the daughter in the family.

Seven distinct first-person voices. Seven tales of the familiar among the unfamiliar. Seven stories told without a hint of gimmick. Just acutely-observed, slyly powerful storytelling from a literary voice you’ll want to hear more of. So then, expect whatever you want from Sightseeing. Rattawut Lapcharoensap will blow your expectations out of the water. Highly recommended.

Read “Farangs” here.

is a writer in Toronto, Canada, and passes his days as a copy editor with The Globe and Mail. He spends his moments of leisure listening to music, reading, watching films and prowling the streets of Toronto, and he feels that he is long-overdue for a vacation so that he can do more of those things. At any given time, he is probably pining for distant shores and really should do more traveling and less pining.