Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok by Emma Larkin, pub. Granta Publications Until now, Emma Larkin’s much praised writing has centred on Myanmar. Her 2005 book, Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Tea Shop , sought to explain that country’s history through its ghosts, underground salons and rumour mills – the Burma beyond foreign correspondents’ dispatches or academic conferences; the society below the surface. In her first novel, Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok , Larkin attempts something similar for the city in which she was born, raised and still lives. Despite a large and varied cast of characters, the novel feels like a personal book, a complicated paean to a complicated city. It’s 2009, a year of political unrest, but also a time of rampant property speculation, despite sharply declining amounts of available land on which to build. And so, at the heart of the book and the spiritual centre of most of the main character’s worlds is a “unicorn”. These are the last remaining patches of jungle waiting to become skyscrapers. Bangkok’s hyper-enthusiastic developers have concreted just about every inch of the city. Canny developer Witty Techarungrueang covets this particular unicorn. His wife, Wongduan, is a former famous actress now making the obsessively watched Thai historical soap operas whose themes resonate with contemporary Thai politics. Witty and Wongduan appear to have everything, except their son, who “disappeared” after the 1992 political protests. His body was never found, and with no explanation given, his parents left his teenage room as it was the day he went out to demonstrate and never returned. After that their lives hollowed out, their respective success rendered meaningless. As Witty surveys the unicorn, inhabitants of the adjacent and over-optimistically named Slum of Bountiful Pleasantness realise their community will be swallowed up by a 60-storey mixed-use complex. Yai Sunan has moved to the slum to escape poverty and violence in the provinces. Her friend, Kongkiat, has sworn to defend this marginal community. Looking down from her 27th-floor condo, Ida, an expat spouse with an adulterous husband, drifts in air-conditioned comfort and contemplates suicide. Instead, she decides to explore the patch of jungle far below her window. At the hub of this varied wheel of life is Comrade Aeon, still hiding after the political convulsions of the 1970s. Perhaps now Bangkok’s self-appointed conscience, he tramps the streets and maps the city in a plethora of notebooks: the seemingly rising number of dead cats, spreading banyan roots, beehives obscured under condo balconies, street dogs’ turf borders, python habitats, migratory birds. They are all just waiting for the swamp and jungle to return and subsume the city. This patch of jungle stands for perhaps the last vestige of sacred ground, a repository of Bangkok’s prelapsarian memory. Sci-fi writer Izumi Suzuki’s short stories will engage and charm you The many characters all have their set scenes and their backstories (which are the book’s real strength), yet regularly cross paths in a cascading series of interactions. That, perhaps, is not surprising in a work dedicated to the multivarious elements of a crowded city, where a billion small and insignificant interactions a day build to the crescendo of urban life. And so the various worlds within worlds of Bangkok intersect: the wealthy property developer with the gangster; the slum dweller with the privileged foreigner; the forgotten underground revolutionary with the still-revered cinema icon. A novel so densely populated with characters could become unwieldy and confusing in the hands of a lesser writer, but Larkin avoids both overcrowding and caricature. Instead, we have a well-drawn cast, in alliance and opposition to each other, set against an intricate portrait of contemporary Bangkok that is, at once, dystopian and magnificent.