Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In Grandmother's House: A review

Monsoon Books sent me a copy of In Grandmother’s House a few weeks ago. It was co-authored by Sorasing Kaowai and Peter Robinson and I was really excited because I’d come across both of them (on paper) before.

When I first came to Thailand I chanced upon the book Phra Farang, a story written by an English man, Peter Robinson, who gave up his London life to ordain as a monk in Bangkok. It was a fascinating read that helped me to understand my adopted country better. I read his second book next, Little Angels which documents real stories of children and youths that the former Phra Peter came across as novice monks. Sorasing’s story was one of those in the book.

In Grandmother’s House is an account of Sorasing’s childhood with his mother and grandmother. “The writing style, he says “is Peter’s, the memories are mine.” The book is part memoir but also an important historical account of the customs and traditions of rural Thailand. Sorasing’s grandmother was the village matriarch, a healer and a midwife. From the day he was born she took over most of his mothering so that his mother could return to work in the fields. His stories made me laugh and they made me weep.

Sorasing’s grandmother began working fulltime in the family paddy fields in 1930 when she was nine - although she would have been helping out with simple tasks for several years. “At nine years old”, Sorasing says, “her childhood days would have been considered at an end by her family and she was expected to work as hard as any adult.” His mother was born in 1954 and she had the compulsory three years of primary schooling but was still almost illiterate. Sorasing’s mother was determined that her son would break free of the cycle of poverty and she knew education was the answer.

Woven between the memoir are stories of their practical lives. We get an insight into their relationship with the creatures around them and food: “Despite sometimes being very dangerous, the creatures around me were all beautiful and interesting. They were only viewed as breakfast, lunch or dinner when we needed something to eat.” He gives us stories of spirits and ghosts, “Thais are a very superstitious people. Even most well educated Thais believe in ghosts…” and Sorasing tells of all kinds of spirits including the Thai man’s terror of a visit from Phi Mae Mai, a female ghost with an insatiable sexual appetite. And stories of his grandmother’s herbal medications, some of which are now used in mainstream medicine. (Some, a live gecko for tummy ache, thankfully are not.)

Sorasing’s written style – and here of course it may be Peter’s style – is disarming. “I know many Westerners think eating rats is disgusting, but they are actually very tasty and provide about the same level of nutrition as chicken or pork, but with less calories... I suppose Thai people eating field rat is not much different from Westerners eating field rabbits.”

In Grandmother’s House is utterly charming. You don’t need to live in Thailand to appreciate it; you need only an interest in your fellow human being. 

In Grandmother's House is available here, in Asia Books Bookazine or Kinokuniya.

(Blogger won't let me upload an image today. I will try again later to post the book jacket.)


Queenie said...

Ooh, I like a good memoir! Thanks for the recommendation.

Jenny Beattie said...

Thanks Queenie. It's a lovely book.

Catherine said...

Excellent book review. I'd say that you are spot on. No tears fell, but I did marvel at the sheer ingenuity and practical living described in the book. The talk of eating bugs and such reminds me of 'A Child of the Northeast', another excellent read.

I'm a huge fan of Peter and his SET Foundation. But I'm afraid my review of 'In Grandmother's House' is coming late (this year has been crazy, crazy). I'll be sure to point to your excellent review when I do.

Kat W said...

This sounds a fascinating book. I shall add it to my groaning amazon basket. I like books where you learn something about another culture, place and/or history as well as enjoying the story.

Kat X

Anonymous said...

Great review! Sounds like a very absorbing memoir

Martyn said...

Excellent review about a book which would interest me very much. I love reading about the olden days and having spent a fair amount of time in rural Thailand the content of Sorasing and Peter's work would I'm sure keep me enthralled for hours.

I'll definitely keep an eye out for it on the bookshelves next time I'm in Thailand.