books which require two-bit literary terms: S.P. Somtow’s Jasmine Nights

I’ll admit I was surprised by S.P. Somtow’s Jasmine Nights, having read only his YA books about vampires. Pleasantly surprised! The description of this book over in Goodreads doesn’t do it justice. I hate to drop high-falutin’ literary terms, but it’s a cross between magic realism and a bildungroman/coming of age story, in which a boy quivering on the cusp of adolescence discovers many things about himself, his family’s culture and the tumult of the world outside his family compound and outside Thailand.

It’s not a particularly straightforward story line: Justin (the name he chose for himself) is a Thai boy brought up in the United States1 and sent to live in the family household in Thailand for three years in the early 1960s. (The family includes his three ‘grandmothers’, three aunts and one uncle) When the story begins, he’s been at home for several months, as the English-language school which he’d been attending closed after a disagreement with the government; he’s kept himself occupied with his chameleon, Homer, and reading Greek and Roman literature. As a result, he’s intellectually precocious but has relatively little experience with other kids, whether Thai or English/American; this changes when an African-American family rents one of his family’s cottages, and he befriends the son, Virgil. Not surprisingly, this brings not a little racial tension into the book, especially when Justin becomes acquainted with Caucasian Texan and South African boys at the country club. Over the course of the book, Justin starts stretching out into the adult world around him.

The only drawback was that I’m curious to know a titch more about the protagonist’s life before coming to live with his Thai family, as it seems like he’d not lived in the country before, but I couldn’t find any mention of where he DID live. I also noticed….I hesitate to call it a “Gary Stu” element but rather a tinge of autobiography about this, largely in the moving between countries and cultures as a child and the being slated to attend Eton. I wouldn’t mind knowing how intentional that was.

Before I go any further: I’d say the point of the book was a boy trying to make sense of the confusing world of adults, who say one thing and mean quite another, embarrassed about sex but who pursue it avidly, complicated by working out which culture is his own. I’m not sure whether to call this a YA or adult fiction work; as with Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat Books, I’d probably end up putting it in the adult collection of a public library in one of the more conservative areas of the United States, but steering sensible mature teens to it. The writing style’s a bit complex compared to the intentionally teen books I’ve read recently, and [clears throat delicately] between the boys’ budding curiosity and the aunts’ proclivities, fondly protective parents might not want younger kids reading it. But then I’m not sure younger kids would want to.

1I think. The book isn’t clear on this point.


2 thoughts on “books which require two-bit literary terms: S.P. Somtow’s Jasmine Nights

  1. I’ll have to see if the library has this particular Somtow book, because I picked one randomly (“Wizard’s Apprentice”) and I think that even if I was in the targeted age group it would be better used as garden mulch than as something to read. Honestly, it reads like a first draft; I can’t help wondering if he sat down and ripped it off in a hurry to meet a deadline or fulfill a contract requirement.

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