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Claire, the young bride of a government contractor, arrives in Bangkok with her husband on March 9, 1967, the day U.S. planes begin bombing runs on North Vietnam. At a dinner party, she meets and befriends Jim Thompson, the real-life American entrepreneur and founder of the Thai Silk Company. Weeks later, on Easter ...
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Claire, the young bride of a government contractor, arrives in Bangkok with her husband on March 9, 1967, the day U.S. planes begin bombing runs on North Vietnam. At a dinner party, she meets and befriends Jim Thompson, the real-life American entrepreneur and founder of the Thai Silk Company. Weeks later, on Easter Sunday, Thompson vanishes without a trace in the Thai highlands. As the political implications of Thompson's disappearance surface, Claire becomes increasingly obsessed with his fate. Her quest into what happened, fueled by the longing and loneliness she feels in an exotic land marked by growing unrest, leads to a tragic truth that becomes a metaphor for two cultures in collision. Written in powerful, arresting prose, this taut suspense novel further establishes Lily Tuck as a major voice in literary fiction.
"Swift, sharp, and elegant . . . Reading Siam is like having your senses brushed by silk."—John Casey
2000 PEN/Faulkner Award Nominee
"Do you know Prajnaparamita?" Jim Thompson held up a small bronze statue with a dozen arms. He spoke as if he were introducing Claire to one of his close friends. "She's the goddess of wisdom. And this is Chanda-li." Jim Thompson picked up another bronze statue from his desk and handed it to Claire. "She's a goddess, too, a yogini. She's the destroyer of ignorance."
The statues were solid bronze and heavier than they looked. Claire held a statue in each hand, weighing them. "Of the two, Chanda-li has the harder job," she said.
"You're quite right," Jim Thompson answered, taking Claire's arm to guide her back to rejoin his guests.
In the drawing room, the sofas, the chairs, the cushions, the low carved Thai teak bed--which served as both table and seat--were covered in silk: yellow, green, orange, red, violet, blue silks. On the side tables, delicate lacquer bowls held macadamia nuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds. Bencharong vases were brimming with jasmine, roses, and tuberoses. Their sweet scent filled the air.
Dressed in a bright sarong, a barefoot servant walked quickly past on the polished wood floor; he was balancing a tray of drinks--iced water, whiskey, champagne.
"The house is open to thepublic twice a week, like a museum," Claire overheard a woman say.
"I've heard that Jim's collection of Southeast Asian art is one of--" someone else started to answer as Claire moved away.
The drawing room opened onto the terrace. Past the garden of long-leaf mangoes, arching rain trees, fragrant frangipani bushes, on the other side of the canal, like a lit-up scene set in a play--a play performed expressly for them--Claire could see the silk weavers spinning and dyeing their bright skeins of threads. Intent on their work, the weavers did not look up.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Claire said when James came up and put his arm around her. "Jim Thompson told me that when he first arrived in Thailand there were only about a dozen silk weavers--just a cottage industry, he said."
"Yeah, and it's been profitable for him, too." James squeezed Claire more tightly to him. James was broad shouldered and strong. He had curly red hair. Every morning, he combed it down with water, but by afternoon his hair had sprung back into bunches of tight curls--worse, in Bangkok, James said, because of the humidity. "What do they call him? The Thai silk king."
Claire was seated next to a Thai prince and a brigadier general. The brigadier general was the first to speak. "Tell me, how long have you two been married, Claire?" He hesitated slightly when he said her name.
"Two weeks." Claire blushed.
"This must be quite a change for a pretty young woman like you. Have you known Jim Thompson long?"
"Jim and I date back to the war--the Second World War. We were in the OSS together--the Office of Strategic Services. You weren't even born probably."
Claire looked over at Jim Thompson who was sitting at the head of the dining-room table. In his late fifties or early sixties, blue-eyed, his light hair receding, Jim Thompson looked like a lot of men--bankers, lawyers, her father's friends, her mother's relatives, neighbors. Sensing perhaps that Claire was looking at him, Jim Thompson glanced up, smiled at her. But his good manners, his politeness, had struck Claire right away. She smiled back. More than politeness, there was an innate courtesy, a gentleness about him--the way Jim Thompson had taken Claire's arm and guided her through the rooms of his house.
The Thai prince told Claire that he had studied at Harvard.
"My father teaches at Harvard," she said.
The Thai prince smiled. He had even white teeth. He spoke with a British accent. "What does your father teach?"
The Thai prince shook his neat dark head. "I'm afraid I did not have the pleasure of studying with your father. I went to the Harvard Business School. But I did study Latin as a boy. I can still recite a great deal of the Aeneid by heart: Arma virumque cano--"
Claire nodded. "Troiae qui primus ab oris--And what do you do?"
"Cement. I'm in the cement business."
"And how do you know Mr. Thompson?"
"I've known Jim since the war actually, when he first arrived in Thailand, during the reign of King Ananda."
"Our present king, King Bhumibol's, older brother. King Ananda was killed in a most unfortunate accident."
"I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"Very few foreigners do. I'm afraid foreigners don't take much interest in our history."
"I was planning to--" Claire started to say, but the Thai prince had turned away to talk to the woman on his other side.
Claire helped herself a second time to a dish of tiny shrimp cooked in a sauce flavored with lemongrass that was neither too hot nor too spicy. She admired the blue and white china off which she ate, the grace of the servants who handled the plates. Bouquets of purple orchids decorated the table; the silk napkins, the silver, the glasses all gleamed in the candlelight. The night air was fragrant with frangipani blossoms and the women's perfume.
The woman on Jim Thompson's right was dressed in silver; the star sapphires at her throat reflected the light. She held one of Jim Thompson's hands in both of hers, and whatever she was telling him made him laugh. The woman on Jim Thompson's left had bright red lips and fingernails painted to match; her thick dark hair was coiled elaborately around her head like snakes. She was leaning lightly against him. The coils brushed Jim Thompson's shoulder, and she, too, was laughing.
"Jim has many good friends in Thailand." The Thai prince had followed Claire's gaze. "My wife is especially fond of him."
Nodding, Claire wondered which of the two women was the Thai prince's wife--the silver one or the one with the snakes? And which wife?
Across the table, James sat next to the French cultural attache's wife. Like Claire, the French cultural attache's wife was blond, but she was plumper. James, too, was making her laugh. When the French cultural attache's wife leaned over, James could look down her low-cut dress.
"I hope you will have a chance to visit other parts of Thailand," the Thai prince was saying. "There are so many beautiful places--the ancient capitals of Ayuthaya, of Sukhothai." Before Claire could answer--her mouth was filled with a delicate mixture of mangoes and coconut milk--the Thai prince said, "Your husband, I imagine, has to travel a great deal."
The brigadier general turned to Claire and asked nearly the same thing: "How often does James have to go up north? Where does he go? Korat? Udorn?"
"Nakhon Phanom. James goes once a week."
"James may have to go up more often now. Between the communist insurgents and the North Vietnamese, life is not getting any easier for us."
"I read in the paper about the peace talks--" Claire started to say.
"If only it were so simple--but you shouldn't be worrying your head over such things." The brigadier general patted Claire's arm. "Anyway, it's not our problem. It's Bob McNamara's problem."
Jim Thompson's cockatoo was perched on the terrace railing. As Claire walked back to the drawing room, the big white bird raised the bright orange crest on top of his head and whistled. Without thinking about it, Claire put out her arm to him. Right away the cockatoo clambered onto it. His sharp claws dug into her flesh as, balancing himself with his strong black beak, he climbed up her arm. Once the cockatoo had reached Claire's shoulder, he lowered his head next to hers. She could feel the soft brush of his feathers against her cheek.
"He wants you to scratch him." Jim Thompson was standing next to Claire. "Right there under his crest."
Cautiously, Claire reached up and did.
"He's a smart bird. He likes you," Jim Thompson said. "Most people are afraid of him. My houseboy, Yee, won't go near him."
During coffee, Jim Thompson, James, and the brigadier general sat out on the terrace; they smoked cigars. "In the past," Claire heard Jim Thompson say, "Thailand was able to keep its independence because it was able to maneuver, to take sides without making a commitment--as in the case of the Japanese. But this is no longer true. The American presence in Thailand has eliminated any hope that the Thais can negotiate and reach any kind of agreement with their neighbors--Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, even North Vietnam. In other words, to put it crudely the way we do down in Delaware, the Americans have Thailand hogtied."
On the way home in the Land Rover, James said, "You made a big hit with Jim Thompson and that parrot. I was afraid it was going to take your arm off."
"I liked him--I mean Jim Thompson--and I liked the cockatoo. Maybe we could get one."
"Cockatoo? Over my dead body--those birds give me the creeps." James pulled Claire over closer to him on the car seat. "What did you and Prince Chamlong talk about? He's supposed to be one of the richest men in Thailand. His wife is related to Prime Minister Thanom."
"I don't know. King Bhumibol's brother, King Ananda." Claire yawned, still unaccustomed to the different hour, to the different day. "Tell me again how you know Jim Thompson?"
"Bangkok's a small--" James suddenly braked the Land Rover. "Did you see that? Doesn't the idiot know how to signal!--Jim Thompson? Everyone knows Jim Thompson."
"Jim Thompson said he would show me the rest of his house when he got back from his trip to the Cameron Highlands. I liked Jim Thompson," Claire said again, putting her head on James's shoulder. "I liked him."
Excerpted from Siam by Lily Tuck Copyright © 2000 by Lily Tuck. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 20, 2000
This is not a book for political or literary conservatives; a reader looking for an escapist story of love and danger in an exotic setting will be disappointed. 'Siam' is likely to delight those who enjoyed, say, Greene's 'Quiet American.' Ms. Tuck is a highly skilled, sharply observant, and independent-minded novelist with a spare, taut, restrained style. In masterfully blending travelog, suspense, and satire, her narrative ultimately creates a gripping allegory of American destruction of Indochina.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.