Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok by Emma Larkin

by Kristopher Cook
Comrade Aeon's Field Guide to Bangkok by Emma Larkin - Book Review - Kristopher Cook

One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four mississip-. Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok is a mix of several characters, exploring both the high life of luxury and the deafening noise of the slums. This book is a must-read for anyone who loves a dark mystery, along with the mystical realism of Salman Rushdie.

The genre here is mystical realism, tinged with a sense of mystery. The mystery, in this case, is long-standing and slowly unravelled as the plot proceeds, which might not be for everyone.

It’s also worth noting that Emma Larkin is a pseudonym for an American journalist working in Thailand and Myanmar. Despite this, Larkin does not set out to dismantle the Thai government in a convolute manner. Instead, she allows the reader to decide for themselves.

Comrade Aeon is a former veteran who wanders through the back alleys of Bangkok, taking note of all the intricate details that we often miss. The types of snakes that have been reproducing in the sewers, the ever-increasing pollution, or even the increasing number of dead cats that keep turning up. There’s also one person that he keeps a particular interest in; Wongduan.

Wongduan is a former actress/singer living in a new luxury apartment with her husband, Witty, a high-flying property developer. But they both carry the enormous weight of losing their son, who was protesting against the Thai government.

Plenty of conspiracies as to why start to unravel and are further added to by a local woman named Ida. She has vivid nightmares of the evolving, violent slums, which lead her to constantly passing out in unknown spots.

Deep in the City           

Going into this one, I was expecting to read more about Bangkok’s gritty underworld and seedy nature. I guess Private Dancer has skewed my views on Bangkok a little because it’s not all go-go bars and prostitutes.

However, there is still a serious amount of dirty dealings. Larkin, who grew up in Bangkok, portrays these nuances excellently. The perfect example is when Witty wants to proceed with a luxury property development, but the only way to make it viable is to remove the slums.

Here, the heavies are sent in to ruffle up the residents and force them to leave. Within the foundation laying phase, the builders discover bones hidden in the ground. Could this be a mass grave? How about the protesters that went missing several years earlier? Maybe the whole thing is a government cover-up of the Sanam Luong protests?

The book loops all these problems together through several complex characters. This follows in a similar style to Shantaram, although the action is denser and easier to navigate.

Due to my lack of understanding of Thai names, I struggled to remember their names initially. Still, fortunately, they’re all so well developed, it’s easy to get a handle on who’s who.

Lost at Sea

My favourite characters are definitely the couple, Witty and Wongduan.

Although Wongduan won’t give up her search for her missing son, it does begin to stretch their relationship. By attending rallies with other parents of missing children and constantly wallowing around the apartment, Wongduan’s only comfort is in her TV scriptwriting, which is proving to be quite the hit around Bangkok.

As she campaigns for searches of nearby sites, including a mysterious container dropped in the ocean, all avenues come up empty. Because of this, the residents have stopped caring about the missing bodies, forcing the parents to take matters into their own hands.

However, despite his hard nature, it’s clear that Witty too misses his son. Entering into his son’s old room, which is still left as it once was, he takes in the touches of his son’s personality by looking over the items staring back at him.

Historical Drama

Wongduan’s TV series is a through-line in the novel and is a connection to move from one family narrative to another. Most households have the television on, at least in the background throughout.

This is also indicative of Comrade Aeon, whose obsession with Wongduan leads him to excessive studying of her actions. Within his shack, hidden away in the elusive jungle, he stores hundreds of notebooks filled with scribbles, illustrations and magazine cut-outs of the subtle changes in Bangkok. And his prime possession is the one in which he keeps a running history on Wongduan’s life.

Closing Thoughts

Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok is a great novel that transpires the far reaches of a dirty city, all the way through to the untouched jungle. With excellent character depth, motivations and outcomes, this one is a must-read for anyone looking to explore some Bangkok mysteries.

Although the tension is slow-building, I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s previously enjoyed Shantaram. A mystical tale taking place in a diverse environment, there’s still a lot to learn about Thailand.

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