MORE GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER
Pure, by Timothy Mo
Firstly, apologies for the book cover: for those who can’t see a thing it is pristinely white, as befits a novel about purity – the irony is that Snooky, its main protagonist and the principal narrator of this complex and brilliant story, is anything but. She is a tall and strapping Thai ladyboy, drug-addicted, amoral, longing to be a woman but ultimately unwilling to have ‘the operation’. She (always ‘she’ – the further the reader gets into the story the more her femininity is reinforced) is also a person of strong loyalties and friendships, not only among her ladyboy Sistas but for childhood friends at her local village school in the predominantly Muslim Southern region of Thailand. She cherishes the friendship of charismatic and wildly popular Jefri, a benison casually bestowed upon her out of sympathy for her situation, she being the family disgrace, an insult to their good and devout name and an object of intense hatred to her older half-brother. Oh, life was unkind to Snooky and it comes as no surprise that she lit out for the fleshpots of Bangkok as soon as the opportunity arose.
Snooky makes a life for herself; she learns English well enough to become, of all things, a movie and food critic for a midsize paper – when she is not out clubbing and drugging, whoring and scoring with her trannie friends; she has a good, close friendship with Avril, a straight Canadian girl, and apart from some new and worrying health problems, life is satisfactorily hedonistic – until.
Until the police raid her flat and take her and the screaming Sistas down to the local station, there to concentrate on beating them all up, but with the object of narrowing the field to Snooky, the real person of interest. And the person who is most interested is the sadistic Look Khreung, a Eurasian intelligence officer wishing to infiltrate the Southern Thai Muslim religious schools, or Pondoks, correctly believing that some or all of them are hotbeds of sedition and rebellion. He needs a spy, a familiar face – suitably roughed-up by his cronies as authentic proof of Thai discrimination against Muslims – to return to the South as a Mole (see, I know my John Le Carré!), especially as the noble Jefri has now excited suspicion for his subversive activities.
Needless to say, Snooky is not receptive to this suggestion but the alternative is even worse: twenty years in prison for drug crimes. What’s a girl to do, except to obey her hated handler who is in turn controlled by an old-school, retired Oxford Don, to whom Snooky is supposed to send encrypted info.
Poor Snooky: she’s well and truly between a rock and a hard place, and feels even worse when her new Muslim teachers, who despise her otherness, call her Ahmed (her birth-name) and force her to take testosterone so that her beard will grow. She has reached her nadir – until she realises after a few months of religious study with Shayk, the revered leader of the Pondok, that there can be an alternative to her old life, a just and clean way of living, a purity to her existence and a belonging that she has always yearned for but never previously experienced. Eventually, the despised ladyboy becomes a valued and resourceful member of the cell. (She even makes a dreadful propaganda movie!) For the first time in her life she is truly part of a family – a family bent on the destruction of the infidel.
This book is brilliant: it’s characters, some of whom have a turn at narrating the story, are masterful creations and Mr Mo gives us a superb overview of South East Asian politics and a deeply disturbing insight into religious fanaticism. His scholarship is impressive – but daunting: I have to admit that I floundered amongst the erudite ramblings of Victor Veridian, retired Oxford Don and sometime Spy. There were references to various world events that flew over my head like sparrows, leaving me feeling more than a little lacking in the smarts department – and the print was so small it made my eyes water.
Regardless, Snooky will remain with me always, that irrepressible, hilarious, doomed and valiant girl, who, despite her worsening illness, decides to arrange a meeting with all her enemies, then go out with a bang – ‘Yah man, because Snooky loves the limelight!’
And rightly so: she’s unforgettable.
Mick Kennedy, one of Dublin’s most successful detectives is assigned to a shocking new murder case: the killing of an entire family in their recently purchased house at Brianstown, a new seaside estate some distance from the city. Kennedy is an arrogant man, supremely confident in his ability to ‘get a solve’ because he is so good at what he does – and he is also a straight arrow; incorruptible: no easy, manufactured evidence or short-cuts when he’s on the case.
All the signs point to murder/suicide. The husband lost his job almost as soon as they moved into their dream home; the dream home turned out to be a jerry-built nightmare amongst many on an estate that quickly ran out of money before all the promises of beautiful new community facilities were met; the estate was too far to commute to work, should anyone be lucky enough to have a job, for the great Irish recession had wiped out employment like the flick of a dishcloth countrywide – all perfect reasons for the breaking point to be reached and the family to be sent to the hereafter in a last terrible act of togetherness.
Ms French is a powerful writer. She recounts with effortless ease of the ties of love and loyalty that bind people together – and the awful acts that tear them apart. As detective Kennedy and his new probationary partner Richie Curran delve deeper into what should have been an open-and-shut case, they find to their dismay that, as with the humble onion, there are many more layers to peel away before they arrive at the awful truth, and many ghosts that must be laid to rest – not least by Mick Kennedy, whose past contains shocking memories of Broken Harbour, now called Brianstown.
This is the third book I have read by Ms French; once again, she meets the same high standards she sets for herself and that every reader has come to expect in each story: what a pleasure it is to read her work. Highly recommended.