The Thailand of 1996 is the backdrop to Chris Flynn’s compelling 2012-published novel, A Tiger in Eden. And while it’s not the most well-rounded depiction of the kingdom we’ve come across in fiction, the story of the protagonist Billy Montgomery is so enthralling that we’re happy to put that aside and still recommend the book if you’re travelling there.
Billy Montgomery is on the run in the tropics from the violence of the Troubles back home in Ireland. We’re not sure what he’s done, but we certainly see what he’s capable of as he repeatedly gets involved in brawls that leave his competitors bloody, cowering and apologetic. At the same time, he’s meeting women, getting drunk and behaving like a typical partying backpacker: “Phi Phi was party central at the best of times and I threw myself into bed with loads of women and got into a few fights and that. I lost myself there for a while I don’t mind telling you, I was more than a wee bit fucked up to be honest,” he writes. He heads to Phuket—“Now there’s a place that’s well named”—and then down to Malaysia’s Langkawi to meet a French friend, than back up to Bangkok stopping at places rarely seen in literature, such as Satun and Prachuap Kiri Khan.
While not too much drives the plot initially, what reeled us right in was the voice of Billy. Written in Belfast vernacular—featuring the liberal use of ‘aul’, ‘ye’ and ‘like’—and with plenty of serious swearing, too, Billy’s way of speaking gets right inside your head, and is frequently hilarious. He’s not a pleasant character, yet Flynn, who was himself born in Belfast and grew up during the Troubles, somehow turns the Loyalist-tattoo covered, muay Thai-boxing exile into a rough diamond, making you want him to come good as you turn the pages and he heads to a Buddhist monastery.
The occasional cultural error mars the book if you have much knowledge about Thailand: A description of Loy Krathong is supposedly Thai New Year, for instance. But then again, it’s all in Billy’s voice, so maybe he just messed that up himself.
On the other hand, Flynn does manage to squeeze in some of the problems the country faced in the 1990s and still struggles with: rubbish and environmental concerns, the spread of HIV, sex tourism and paedophilia—so much for “Eden”. And he hits the nail hilariously on the head sometimes, such as describing cold long-distance buses: “… I caught one of them fancier coaches one time and near froze my bollocks off. They had the aircon pumping it was like a fucking meat locker or something in there, all the westerners like me were in shorts and T-shirts and the Thais had to hand out blankets to keep people warm, it was fucking stupid so it was, sure the sun was belting down outside, just turn it down fuck sake I says but they wouldn’t.” Flynn manages a pretty accurate description of the wilder side of the backpacking scene back in the day, too.
So, read this for Billy’s storytelling skills—those Irish, they get us every time!—and for a taste of what Thailand was like a couple of decades ago, the echoes of which naturally remain today. Billy is a character whose voice will hang around in your head long after you’ve finished the book.
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