cover image Siam: Or the Woman Who Shot a Man

Siam: Or the Woman Who Shot a Man

Lily Tuck. Overlook Press, $23.95 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-87951-723-6

Probing the futility of good intentions and the pitfalls of cultural miscommunication, this assured and absorbing third novel by Tuck (The Woman Who Walked on Water) opens on March 9, 1967, the day the U.S. starts bombing North Vietnam from bases in Thailand. Claire, a 25-year-old Boston bride, arrives in Bangkok with her husband, James, an American engineer who builds runways in Nakhon Phanom, in northeast Thailand, for the American bombers. James's weekly trips to supervise construction leave his young, conspicuously blonde wife to fend for herself, and Claire discovers almost immediately that the luxurious lifestyle James described has an unpleasant underside. The heat is unrelenting; their pool is covered with green slime; the servants wash in a sewage-filled canal; hot peppers make most food indigestible to her. Unlike the few other American wives she meets, Claire is driven to question her surroundings, but the information she garners in hours of research at the local British library, through her daily language classes and on shopping excursions around the city is even more disturbing. Snubbed by Thai acquaintances when she tries to discuss the political situation, she turns to her husband, but insensitive James treats her as little more than a sexual object. Meanwhile, Claire becomes obsessed with legendary American entrepreneur Jim Thompson, who has disappeared while on a trip to the Highlands. Though she has met him only once, Thompson typifies to Claire all the mysterious events that seem to be going on just outside her circle of understanding. As the political and cultural climate in Bangkok grows increasingly oppressive, Claire begins to lose touch with reality, and her feverish imaginings precipitate tragedy. Tuck uses words with economy, evoking the lush locale and mysterious culture of Thailand with precise details and sensory images, and effectively contrasting the crisp, arrogant attitude of the American colony with the polite if evasive conduct of the Thai population. Her vivid, unromanticized picture of Bangkok in the late '60s is a fitting backdrop for a haunting story about the end of innocence. (Nov.)