★★★★☆ Book Review: A Good True Thai by Sunisa Manning
Poignant debut delves into the Thai university protests of the 70s through the lens of tragedy and revolt.
The title of Thai author Sunisa Manning’s debut novel begs the question: what exactly makes someone a ‘good true Thai’? Similar to the most compelling political dissidents around the world, one might perhaps think of it as being critical, yet always done with the country’s best interests at heart, a view that does not necessarily equate the government to the country itself.
Set in Thailand in the 1970s, A Good True Thai follows a group of three young friends as they grow up in one of the kingdom’s most tumultuous periods, filled with rage and revolt against dictators and problematic political practices. There’s royal Det, the great-grandson of a king; his best friend Chang, a boy from the slums; and Lek, a Chinese immigrant with radical ideals. Each one coming with their respective burdens to bear, their lives are set to change completely as they go from school to the jungle, and face one of Thailand’s most controversial tragedies in history.
Even if you go in knowing nothing about Thai history, A Good True Thai can be appreciated purely on the basis of the strength of writing that goes into each of the three protagonists. What Sunisa Manning does so well with her writing is her ability to get us to constantly switch alliances, never entirely sure which of the three to side, each one wrestling with their personal feelings and agendas to fulfil.
Det in particular, is probably the most compelling of the three. As a man of royal blood, but not officially recognised thanks to inheriting it through his mother’s side, his entire world view is flipped upside down when he realises he is no better than a commoner after his mother’s death, and we feel the slipperiness of the political intrigue that goes on behind palace walls. Throughout his arc, we are made fully aware of the reasons behind his identity crisis, and why he chooses to abandon everything he knows.
As deuteragonists, Chang and Lek are similarly intriguing, as well as being more familiar character archetypes. Chang’s position as a member of the lower class automatically makes his goals and resistance understandable. Meanwhile Lek, with her radical ideals, is probably the most recognisable character of the three, one whose position of middle-class privilege conflates with her status as a foreigner. With the chip on her shoulder and opportunities to press on for her beliefs, Lek’s arc is further complicated by her relationship with Det, and a rare example of a female character whose role is independent of her gender.
The more the three become involved in each other’s lives, the more entangled the story becomes, alongside the introduction of several more minor characters. As the resistance efforts heat up and they go head to head with the authorities in the Thammasat University massacre of 1976, A Good True Thai hurtles towards its tragic, violent finale, as their beliefs and fight ultimately result in naught. As many sacrifices as they make, as much pain as they endure, we come to realise that they are mere pawns of greater forces at work, the individual erased in favour of being co-opted as political symbols that forgets who they are.
Going beyond being a dramatised account of one of Thailand’s most shocking tragedies, A Good True Thai becomes a poignant reminder of the challenges of making political change, and how one’s efforts are often lost in the wake of higher powers at war. One is left to wonder what is the point of revolt and protest when so little comes of it, and whether it is truly worth the struggle to be a loving critic of society.
Recommended for: Readers interested in getting a dramatic take on the events leading up to Thammasat University Massacre, and for a hard lesson on the sacrifices and difficulties of achieving political change.
A Good True Thai is published by Epigram and available here