New Travel Book Visits Dangerous Thailand

Destination: Thailand

Book: Currency by Zoe Zolbrod (NEW May, 2010)

Once again life overtakes art. On the day after the new novel, Currency by Zoe Zolbrod is released, Bangkok was burning. I finished reading my advanced review copy the  day after the release date, and then settled in to watch these horrendous images on the computer.

For a while, it will be necessary to work hard to push down those images of Bangkok burning as you read about the gentler side of Thai culture in Zolbrods terrific new cultural travel book.  But the gentleness changes as the character play a dangerous game. As a first novel, this book truly is amazing. The author gets under the skin of both the main characters–a backpacking American girl who has maxed out her credit cards, and a handsome Thai man who has learned to make a living off farang girls.

What results is a love story that helps drive the thriller plot as the couples’ desire for some currency drives them deeper and deeper into harm’s way. With a smooth-talking African businessman and a disgusting pig of a Russian scoundrel surrounded by his overweight paid girlfriends to round out the plot.

The will she/won’t she and will he /won’t he of the love story keep you guessing, and each time the duo feels attracted or pulls apart, the adventure they have stepped into expands or contracts. It is difficult to talk about a plot like this without giving something away, so let’s talk about dialogue and setting.

We hear the story alternately in the voice of Piv and of Robin. He is cool and detached, proud of his command of English. But his method of expression is definitely a Thai-tinged English, which Zolbrod captures perfectly.

I buy food from street vendor–egg yolk that they make sweet–and I lean on one wall to eat this.

World traveler Robin, frantic to assemble some money so that she can leave the country and get her visa renewed, meets Piv at Sukothai, when she is at her most vulnerable. She falls hard for him–wanting “to make something with him” as Piv would say, and they stay together much longer than most of the farang girls Piv has attracted. Besides being flighty about paying her credit card bills, Robin panics at every sight of danger. And there is plenty of danger.

Zolbrod shows us backpacker’s Bangkok, but also Jim Thompson’s house, a ride on the canals and even some country places in the north (where the present demonstrators came from and where, as I write–they are burning buildings.)

Here’s an example of Zolbrod’s descriptive powers:

No first-class buses routed through Pai, so at dawn Robin and Piv climbed on the third-class one.  The paved road through this part of the mountains had been laid about twenty years ago, but the rough state of it made it seem biblical, an archaeological find, and the bus staggered and  slowed with every gear shift. The marigold and jasmine strung from the rearview mirror jerked so rapidly they looked like hummingbird wings.

Currency definitely interfered with my tasks because despite all my promises to myself, I could not put it down at the end of a chapter. I would call it a good summer/beach read, but don’t want to diminish it. I also predict that it will be standard fare in every backpacker hostel in Southeast Asia before very long. But it deals with important subjects like the trafficking that the couple gets involved in and cross-cultural relationships, so the readership should be broad.

Follow the author on Twitter @zoezolbrod or see her fan page on Facebook

We just discussed February the novel that imitated life with a story of a ocean drilling accident. Have you read other books that echo current events?

Have you been watching the news about the demonstrations in Thailand? Any thoughts about the contradiction between the outward calm valued in the society and the present violence?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

6 thoughts on “New Travel Book Visits Dangerous Thailand

  1. every culture has both violence and calm in its make up, of course. it’s my understanding that the violence in Thailand is mainly in Bangkok. all that said, fiction offers windows into a culture just as history or other narrative do. sounds an interesting debut novel.
    .-= Kerry Dexter hopes you will read blog ..Irish exploration: Peadar Ó Riada =-.

    1. Kerry: Although the violence started in Bangkok, it spread much further. Among the pictures in the slide show that I linked, is one of a provincial town hall burning. The protesters came from the North–or at least the movement started there, according to what I read.

  2. This was a great review. I think there is probably more ‘non fiction’ in this ‘fiction’ book then people will realize. I knew of an Australian girl who ended up in the Thai prison- I wish she might have read such a book before she went to Thailand so she didn’t take the chances she took…or my Ghanaian friend who ended up being hanged in Singapore for drug trafficking …these things are all too real and the ‘fiction’ world just exposes them.

  3. Loved the review of Zoe Zolbrod’s Currency. We have business partners in Thailand, and I need to visit myself. Thanks for sharing.
    Sorry-don’t read that much fiction so “life imitating art” happens rarely.

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