After I moved to Bangkok in 1996, Jasmine Nights by S.P. Somtow was one of those novels that I would often see in local bookshops, yet I only got around to reading it last week. That’s my loss for waiting so long; this is a marvelous novel, both a humorous coming-of-age tale, and one that offers a time capsule of what it must have been like living in Bangkok in 1963. From the descriptions of savory street food and paddling boats down the pungent city klongs (canals), to details of the Thai belief in ghosts and lucky amulets, this novel strikes the right chord from beginning to end. Best of all, the book is populated by a thoroughly entertaining cast of colorful characters, both Thais and “farangs” (foreigners).
Jasmine Nights is the story of a 12-year-old boy nicknamed “Little Frog” — a rich, sheltered child who prefers the nickname “Justin” and enjoys reading classics of English language literature such as “Homer” and the plays of Shakespeare — and his eccentric circle of relatives, employees, and friends. The boy’s parents, we are told, “disappeared” when Little Frog was younger and their whereabouts aren’t divulged to the child. In their absence Little Frog is being raised by his three aunts in a secluded Bangkok estate. His best friends are his books and his pet chameleon. Early in the novel, several alarming things happen; Little Frog witnesses the maid giving his uncle a blow job at a family funeral, the beloved chameleon dies, Little Frog accidentally meets his mysterious great-grandmother (a delightful old lady who quotes lines from the film Psycho), and an American family — Black people, of all shocking things! — move in next door. And we can’t forget the gardener who is saving money for a sex change operation, nor the skirt-chasing, tongue-tied British doctor. Before this engaging novel has run its course, Somtow examines the economic and societal gap between the classes in Thailand, racial relations and stereotypes, and the Thai spirit world. Oh, and Jack and Jackie Kennedy are part of the drama too.
Now that I’ve finally discovered this magical novel, I may be pestering my book-loving friends to read it. Really, it’s that great, that impressive. A novel that’s equal parts funny, moving, interesting, and inspiring. Jasmine Nights is a winner on all counts.
S.P. Somtow is the pen name of Thai writer and composer Somtow Sucharitkul. Although Thai by birth, Somtow grew up and was educated in England. English is his first language. As an adult he has split time between Los Angeles and Bangkok. Under the Somtow surname he wrote several acclaimed novels in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly horror and science fiction novels. Thus, Jasmine Nights, first published in 1994, was a bit of a stylistic departure for him, but in my mind a welcome one.
In the past two decades, Somtow has shifted from writing novels, focusing on a musical career. He has composed several symphonies, written an opera, and conducted the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. He is currently the artistic director of the Bangkok Opera.