In 1990s Bangkok, thirty-seven-year-old British travel journalist Pete walks into Zombie, a go-go bar in the infamous Nana Plaza red-light district. Dancing naked on the stage is Joy, a twenty-one-year-old girl from Isaan, the poorest region of Thailand. Pete is immediately smitten. He barfines Joy, and from that moment on they are drawn into a passionate relationship which they both misunderstand. Joy sees Pete as someone who can take care of her and her family financially. Pete is attracted to Joy the bar girl, but he also wants Joy the innocent and cute girl he can spend the rest of his life with. Despite being able to act all cutesy, whether Joy can fit into the latter stereotype is an open question. Pete doesn’t like that Joy sleeps with other foreigners for money, but he seems unwilling to commit to the relationship fully, wanting her to wait until he can figure stuff out. Joy does not see the problem with constantly asking for money from Pete, as being well-off confers status, and besides, she has no sense of fiscal responsibility, spending money as soon as she gets it. Under the cynical eye of friends, relatives, and acquaintances on both sides of the cultural divide, Joy and Pete dance around each other, love, argue, fight, and reconcile, in a vicious and tragic cycle.
The novel is a fascinating study of cross-cultural communications and interaction. Despite spending a long time in the country, and speaking some Thai, Pete misunderstands Joy’s point of view from the start. His jaded friends more or less correctly point out that as a bargirl, Joy is only interested in him as a means of financial security, and how can he expect a girl who has sex for money to be trustworthy. On the other hand, Joy does not understand why Pete is being so obtuse and often feels offended about him trying to control her, with his apparent view that he should “save” her from sex work, something that has been extremely lucrative for her. She is clearly fond of him but fondness and love do not mean the same things for her as they do to him. Growing up in abject poverty, and working as a sex worker since she was a teenager, she sees love as a man taking care of her financially, and she in return taking care of him. Romantic emotional attachment is not necessary for her, or perhaps more accurately is not bound to some Western ideal of star-stricken lovers. She seems quite ready to confer her affections to someone who treats her well and brings her security, though it is hinted that Pete is indeed special to her. Pete, a blundering water buffalo by Thai cultural standards, misinterprets Joy’s loving behaviour as that of a Western girl. But in Thai culture, the subtext is supremely important. A person may be smiling and positive, but the real meaning of their behaviour is tucked away in a complex set of cues readily accessible only to those with the background to interpret them.
The tragic core of the story is that Joy and Pete really do love each other, in their own ways, but seem unable to resolve their differences and move on to a future together. This despite the often unexpectedly helpful and understanding advice from Pete’s Greek Chorus of friends, a collection of “old Thailand hands”.
The story deals with a particular subset of Thai society, the dark world of sex work and related crime, and is not necessarily representative of Thai culture as a whole. That being said, it is a case study in cultural misunderstandings, many of which regularly occur in the wider interactions between Thais and Westerners. Some book critics suggested, rather seriously, that this book should be given out for free to young tourists arriving in the country, and it is easy to see why.
The use of multiple narrators with varying backgrounds works extremely well for the narrative. Some old Thailand hands are cynical almost beyond belief about Thailand, but you can see their point of view. Others, especially Joy’s older sister, are also cynical almost beyond belief about foreigners, but again, you can see their point of view. Pete and Joy typically see the same events in completely different ways. The narrators’ understanding of events is often incomplete, jaded, and even perhaps unreliable, but it all weaves a complex web of what, in the end, is a story of two lovers that the reader would love to end up together.