Millionaire Chinese gamblers, high-class Mongolian escorts, drunken Englishmen — these are the kind of characters who populate Lawrence Osborne's hypnotic new novel, The Ballad of a Small Player. Set in the hotels and casinos of Macau, a former Portuguese colony where ostentatious 21st century glamour meets the faded charms of old Asia, the novel traces the trajectory of a compulsive gambler, the self-styled "Lord" Doyle, a man who seems addicted to failure. "Everyone knows that you are not a real player until you secretly prefer losing," he asserts at the beginning of the novel.
But his fortunes are about to change: The tawdry existence he has eked out for himself at the Hotel Lisboa will be shot to pieces by a combination of outrageous luck, chance meetings, betrayal and ghosts — yes, ghosts, because all this takes place in China, where the locals take their superstitions seriously. Phantoms are not the only things that hover over Doyle, however — he is haunted, too, by his past, which is every bit as murky as his future appears to be.
Doyle is in Macau following a sudden flight from England after being accused of embezzlement, a crime of which he was clearly guilty. What is less clear is the reason for his actions. Osborne's depiction of the stultifying snobbery of Middle England is razor-sharp in its insights, but class prejudice alone is not enough to explain Doyle's decision to steal from an elderly client: Something more primeval eats away at his psyche, an inexplicable desire to overstep the boundaries simply because he is able to, even though he is fully aware of the consequences. In both his initial felony and his subsequent gambling, he acts almost as if under a spell, and much of his behavior treads a fine line between powerlessness and calculation.
The unexplained figures strongly in the novel — Doyle doesn't understand why he cries when talking about changing his life with Dao-Ming, the woman who comes to the rescue when luck deserts him; he doesn't know quite why he leaves her to return to gambling; he doesn't know why he decides to play one last hand at the end of a winning streak. This makes for compelling reading: We want not just to make sense of the unknown — we hover just on the edge of understanding of Doyle's actions — but we are also dragged onto the roller coaster of his knowing recklessness.
The life of a gambler is always going to make for an exciting read — I spent much of my time silently screaming "Don't!" — but in Osborne's hands, the moments of suspense are handled with so much skill that we sometimes read them more as memoir than elements of a thriller. The crescendo of one tense scene at the heart of the novel involves a cutaway to a memory from Doyle's childhood in Sussex, a flashback so delicate and precise that it becomes fully enmeshed in the sweaty-palm present at the Macau casino.
Doyle's tenuous existence in this netherworld drives the novel. He is caught between two cultures, unable to be part of either, just like the Hungry Ghosts of Chinese mythology that he speaks of — those spirits who never found what they needed to survive in life. A sense of dislocation washes through the book, not just in Doyle's rootlessness but that of the other brilliantly drawn characters as well. For example the ruthless gambler known to the bankers and players simply as "Grandma," who wins all of Doyle's money one evening. She is trapped in an unhappy marriage to a wandering husband who allows her to spend his money as she wishes. Like Doyle's, hers is a life that is suspended between two realities, neither completely happy nor completely sad, but wholly unfulfilling.
Macau and Hong Kong feel vivid and true in the novel, yet also otherworldly: Well-known landmarks and weather conditions are captured with a stillness and beauty that make them feel haunting and melancholy. Throughout the novel, food is consumed copiously and recorded in joyful detail, very much in keeping with local habits, yet Doyle's hunger also seems desperate and unnerving. But ultimately it is the uncertain fate of Doyle and the others that made me as a reader feel strangely fulfilled. The decisions they make seem connected to the thrilling and terrifying changes taking place around them. Old ways collide with a brash new world, and in this game, it is not yet clear which will emerge the winner.
Tash Aw's latest novel is Five Star Billionaire.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Luck is a fickle friend in the life of any gambler. In Lawrence Osborne's new novel, it's also the unpredictable heart of the story about a man, a casino and the game of chance. The book is called "The Ballad of a Small Player." Here's author Tash Aw with a review.
TASH AW: We're in Macau, that old Portuguese colony. Here, 21st century glamour meets old Asia and its faded charms. And it's here also that we meet Lord Doyle, an English gambler who seems addicted to failure. Everyone knows you are not a real player until you secretly prefer losing, he tells us at the beginning of the novel. But his fortunes are about to change. A combination of outrageous luck, chance meetings and ghosts will turn him around. After all, this book takes place in China, where the locals take their superstitions seriously.
The life of a gambler will always be an exciting read. I spent much of my time silently screaming, don't. But Osborne handles the moments of suspense so well that they feel more like memoir than thriller. Doyle acts like a haunted man, not only by the spirits of the casino but by his own past. We learn that he fled England when the law firm he worked for accused him of embezzlement. He's clearly guilty but less obvious is why he did it.
Osborne's descriptions of snobbery in England are razor sharp but class consciousness can't really explain why Doyle steals from an older client. It's something more primeval, something in his psyche he can't articulate. He doesn't understand why he cries when he talks about changing his life. When he's rescued by a woman during a time of bad luck, he doesn't quite know why he leaves her to return to gambling. He eats copiously and those scenes are written with joyful detail. But his appetite also feels desperate and unnerving. He's like the hungry ghosts of Chinese mythology, those spirits who never found what they needed to survive in life.
Macau and Hong Kong feel vivid and true in the novel, yet also otherworldly. Well-known landmarks and weather conditions are captured with stillness and beauty. But it is the uncertain fate of Doyle that made me as a reader feel strangely fulfilled. His decisions seem connected to the thrilling and terrifying changes taking place around him. Old ways collide with a brash new world. And in this game, it's not yet clear which will emerge the winner.
BLOCK: The book is "The Ballad of a Small Player" by Lawrence Osborne. Our reviewer is Tash Aw. His latest novel is called "Five Star Billionaire." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.