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Where We Started (working title

by apsara 

Posted: 29 September 2005
Word Count: 1422
Summary: This is the opening of a novel I've been working on for some time - do people get a sense of place?

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Every wife at some point wishes her husband were dead. For some, like me, it may be just now and then; for others it’s every day. The reasons can be various: the sight of a young man’s bum, the longing to take a job in a foreign place, the need for a room of one’s own without high decibel snoring and a hot body beside you. For me, it was on those days when I wondered what I was doing in an insignificant small town in north-eastern Thailand; when I longed for walks in the woods in autumn, wrapped up against the wind; when I dreamed of well stocked English bookshops and bread that didn’t taste like bubble gum and feel like cottonwool. I wished for Somchai’s death, not because I didn’t like him or wasn’t happy with him, but because, married to him, all those things were out of reach.
You should not make wishes lightly, because they might come true. Now here I am dressed in black pyjamas, like some extra in a film about the Khmer Rouge. I’m standing next to Somchai who is laid out in a gold and white coffin draped with coloured fairy lights. Next to it is a framed photo of him that must have been taken when he was about sixteen, certainly long before I met him. He looks fresh faced and serious with none of the passion and humour that I remember. I stand and wai as each group of guests passes me. They offer their sympathies before being ushered to tables by one of my sisters-in-law and quickly served food by one of the many aunts and cousins that have materialized over the past few days and whom I probably last saw at our wedding fifteen years ago.
I’ve never felt comfortable at Thai funerals or weddings. The protocols are alien to me and the vocabulary required beyond my grasp. It didn’t matter so much when I was a guest and I could rely on Somchai to say the right thing, but today I am centre stage and on my own. My daughter, Pim, is coping much better and is the darling of her aunts and uncles. She is Thai and I am not nor ever will be, no matter how fluent in the language or immersed in the culture.
When I imagined Somchai’s death, it was only for a moment. The lack of seasons was a small price to pay for a quiet life far from consumer madness and the stress of the city. I had learned to welcome the rain and enjoy the vivid green of growing rice, the precious coolness of the mornings in December and the swift but stunning sunsets.
When one of the villagers screeched up to our gate on his motorbike and shouted for me to come at once, I had no idea what could have happened. As I jumped on to the back of the bike, he started to shout about how Somchai was sick and needed help, but half the words were lost in the whoosh of air as we sped along the dirt road.
Somchai was lying in the field where he had been helping the villagers plant seedlings: fruit trees that he hoped would help them develop integrated farming and become more self-sufficient and and so less dependent on one crop. They should have gone for the doctor rather than for me, though it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. He was dead by the time I got there. A massive heart attack, the doctor said afterwards. It turned out that his grandfather had suffered the same fate, though Somchai had never mentioned it and, despite the number of doctors in his extended family, no-one seemed to have been aware of the risk.
Somchai’s father meanwhile, a portly man who drinks far too much whisky and smokes twenty a day, is still alive and well and presiding over the funeral. I didn’t have the heart or the interest to protest over the lavishness of the affair. Even if I had, I couldn’t have prevented the massive numbers of people from attending. I estimate there’ll be over two thousand over the ten days, and some of those will come several times. Although the family does the initial welcoming, the cooking, serving and tidying up each day is performed by an army of workers. Somchai’s sisters look askance at my mourning outfit. They wear black silk suits with jet necklaces and high heeled shiny black shoes. The villagers, who made the forty kilometre trek to pay respect and express their sympathy to Somchai’s parents, dress like me and no doubt feel as out of place as I do. Somchai’s father received them with that graceful condescension which is the hallmark of the Thai patrician. I could have wept.
The funeral will last seven days. The booze is flowing and it’s real Scotch so people, especially the men, tend to stay a while. There are always a few who stay up all night playing cards ‘To keep the ghosts away’, they say. This is just an excuse for gambling. I’d be perfectly happy to have Somchai come back from the grave so I could ask him a few pertinent questions. Such as, where does he get the gas bottle filled and how do I contact the man who mends the holes in the roof. In marriage, tasks are parceled out according to gender, strength, preference or whatever and, when one of you goes, half the information that keeps a way of life maintained goes missing. Somchai always did the things that involved dealing with government officials, for instance, because neither my fluency nor my temper were really up to the job. Now I will have to manage alone.
I haven’t cried yet. Perhaps people think me heartless, but the only way to survive Somchai’s family is to put on a hard shell. They have never approved of the marriage which spoiled their hopes of a strategic liaison with one of the more well-established dynasties in the province. Now it’s clear that they think that, despite the medical evidence, I am somehow responsible for his death. They wonder what he saw in me, a foreigner who had no money or ambitions. I married him because he was the kind of person I wanted to be, but wasn’t. As to why he married me, that’s another of those questions that will only be answered if he comes back from beyond the grave.
In case you think that I’m being hard on his family (after all, they’ve suffered a loss, too), let me give you an example. This morning, when I appeared downstairs at nine o’clock after receiving guests till after midnight, his eldest sister, already powdered an inch thick and with lips like gloss paint, said, ‘Somchai was always an early riser. I’m always up before Khun Nit to prepare his breakfast.’
As her sole contribution to preparing breakfast for her husband is shouting orders at the maid, I didn’t think this was a great sacrifice.
‘Somchai always liked to have a bowl of noodles at the market,’I replied, civilly enough. ‘He said it gave him the opportunity to find out what was going on in the community.’
‘There’s not much nutrition in a bowl of noodles – and all that MSG,’ she sniffed, as though he had died of malnutrition or something.
Fortunately, at this point Pim shuffled in, still in her pyjamas, and eldest sister went into her ‘How are you today, darling? Shall I tell the maid to cook you some pancakes?’ mode. I made my escape.
I have taken to walking the streets of this busy, dusty provincial capital. For my sisters-in-law, who travel everywhere in air-conditioned cars, this is another sign of my social unacceptability. And it does have its drawbacks. With my white face, I am always the subject of some attention, maybe just stares, though the odd teenager or small child might shout out, ‘Hey you, farang! Where you go?’ It seems the standard of English taught in schools has not improved much since I first came her to teach in a small village school almost twenty years ago. Over the years I have got used to being noticed, being constantly on display, but today I wish only for a place where I can be completely alone, a place where I can start to think about who I am and what I’m doing here and what the future might hold.

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Comments by other Members

chris2 at 13:02 on 30 September 2005  Report this post
Apsara - This is a great opening (and welcome to the group, by the way).

Yes, I think you've given a fine sense of place, but also of your Main Character's situation.

I liked the style too, but there were a few phrases which, perhaps because they were too 'familiar' or colloquial, seemed to jar with the rest of it. They were 'young man’s bum', In case you think that I’m being hard on his family (after all, they’ve suffered a loss, too), let me give you an example.' and 'went into her ..... mode'.

But that's just a very personal reaction to a few small insignificant bits. The piece as a whole is excellent and I'll be interested to see what comes next.


rogernmorris at 13:16 on 30 September 2005  Report this post
A very strong opening, I think, with a great first sentence! I shall have to keep an eye on my wife from now on. I think the writing is very fluent and clear. You convey a lot but keep the pace moving. In fact, it feels extremely well-written to me. The background of the setting and the narrator's situation feels very authentic and convinces. I thought this: 'I’d be perfectly happy to have Somchai come back from the grave so I could ask him a few pertinent questions. Such as, where does he get the gas bottle filled and how do I contact the man who mends the holes in the roof.' was very well observed. It also tells us a lot about her character. She's unsentimental but honest. She seems to me to be someone who has remained very true to herself, despite her presence in an alien culture. She is a very strong character I feel, and I am imagining that this will cause problems for her in future?! Your portrayal of the sisters in law was brilliant. I got a very real sense of their character, even though they're only figure briefly; the same goes for the other minor characters you introduce (the father). You seem to have a very deft touch for that.

I have a slight obsession about tense of narrative and it's interesting that the bits at the funeral are in the present tense. There are flashbacks in the past tense (obviously). I think it works but I was aware of it.

On another point, the opening paragraph is quite general - you do in fact begin with a generalisation. It reminds me of those famous openings, Tolstoy's to Anna Karenina and Jane Austen's to Pride and Prejudice. As I said, I love your first sentence but I do wonder if the opening para has a little bit of the effect of slowing up the story. What would happen if you took it and had it isolated from the main body of the novel and had it on its own in itals standing as a kind of preface or prologue (hate the word). In fact, I would include the first sentence of the second para too, everything from 'Every wife at some point...' to '...because they might come true'. Then the story itself could begin powerfully and confidently in the present tense: 'Now here I am...' At any rate I will be interested to see how you carry on this tense thing as the novel progresses. Are you always going to be in the present tense? Nothing wrong with that, I've done it myself, but I do find it tricky when combined with first person narration. I always think, 'Who is this person talking to?' or 'How are they writing this down?' Boring of me, I know. And I'm beginning to think it may just be me...

In the second para, you have a typo, with 'wai' instead of 'wait'.

I wasn't sure about this sentence: 'They offer their sympathies before being ushered to tables by one of my sisters-in-law and quickly served food by one of the many aunts and cousins that have materialized over the past few days and whom I probably last saw at our wedding fifteen years ago.' It just feels a bit long and over-loaded?
Do you need to say this at this point: 'fruit trees that he hoped would help them develop integrated farming and become more self-sufficient and and so less dependent on one crop.' It felt a little expositional to me and I wondered if Somchai's altruism might come out more naturally as the novel progresses? I think it works with you having him 'helping the locals plant seedlings...' (or whatever your wording is).
I didn't think you needed this ', as though he had died of malnutrition or something.' It feels a bit weak to me and you have the echo of nutrition and malnutrition. Plus we can infer the s-i-l's hostility/criticism from her remark alone.

That's about it on nit-picks.

I thought it read really well. You've got a great set-up here and a very sympathetic central character. I'm told that's the secret so you're well on your way, I'd say!

Good luck,


ashlinn at 13:58 on 30 September 2005  Report this post

Firstly, welcome to the group. I enjoyed this very much. It is very well-written, fluid, engaging and entertaining. The narrator is very interesting, I like her take on the world around her. She is senstive but independant, blunt and funny (but almost as if she is unaware herself that she is funny)
You asked specifically if there was a sense of place and I certainly got that.There was even a sense of displacement that resonated with me. I live in France, married to a Frenchman with French children and yet I am not French so I thought you captured all that very well.

There were lots of things I wanted to know more about but you very wisely don't tell us everything and that also contributes to my desire to read on.

The sentence 'I could have wept' felt odd given where it is and I do have a sense of suspended judgement on the use of the tense.

What stage are you at with this novel? I look forward to reading more.


CarolineSG at 14:27 on 30 September 2005  Report this post
Hi Apsara, and welcome to the group.
I agree with everyone else here that this is a very strong start and one that makes me want to read more.
It's very well-written and with great characters so far (I agree about the sisters - I can really visualise the eldest one, with those glossy lips...)
Great stuff.
I really like the contrast between the quite breezy way she talks and this, to me, unusual situation she is in.living in Thailand etc..

My feeling about the narrator is that her apparent callousness about her husband's death is very intriguing. It does seem pretty awful and I want to know why she is like this, or whether it is a front.
Only small quibble was that I didn't like the use of 'bum' either. Don't know why - it just jarred somehow. Wondered if you could make it more descriptive, ie 'the way young men's jeans hug their thighs' or something (without going all Mills and Boon here!)Anyway, great stuff. Give us some more when you can.
Hope this is helpful,

Jad at 06:44 on 01 October 2005  Report this post
Hi Apsara, and like everyone else before me, welcome to the group. When I read your piece I was drawn into the stroy pretty well straight away, I liked your style and felt the flow of your writing led into the stroy well. Your description of the funeral scene and comments from the MC's in-laws were quite real and I had a sense of actually being there.

And I agree also with the 'bum' word, I felt it out of place with the rest of your writing.

I look forward to reading further why the MC often wanted her husband 'dead', and you've left a real feeling to want to keep turning the pages of your novel.So the next question is this, is it finished? Or is this your first draft?

Good luck with it Apsara because you've chosen an intersting plot.


Shika at 08:23 on 01 October 2005  Report this post
Hi Aspara (haven't we met somewhere before??)

I loved this. It is the sort of story that would draw me. I like the MC's perspective and yes, it does give a sense of place though not time, yet. I liked the opening line but wondered if the reasons why a wife might wish her husband dead could be more serious. I think the young man's bum made it a bit jokey sounding. Perhaps something about a younger man's musclature would be more appropriate? I agree with Roger's very thorough critique and also wondered who the MC was talking to when she gave her example of the sister's behaviour. I also liked the quick flick thing you did with the flash back because it didn't feel burdensome although I knew that it was happening. I hope this helps. S

apsara at 11:20 on 05 October 2005  Report this post
Thanks everyone - this is really helpful feedback - I have done quite a bit of work on this opening - the challenge is to be that thorough with all the other bits - so expect more of this!
Re the tense - yes, i am also ambivalent about this and it is a challenge as the novel moves on (I have written quite a bit but mostly in a more unfinished state than this) - when I come back to scenes I often find that I've mixed the tense or I shift it from one tense to another.
Who is she speaking to? A challenge. I have the daughter speak too later on but she writes letters to her dead father so the issue of tense is much easier. I don't want it to be all in letters though - too Victorian.
I have been working with this novel for about 9 months now and keep getting bogged down and totally disillusioned with it. But you have inspired me to keep on with it so thanks (I think!).

scoops at 22:19 on 10 October 2005  Report this post
Aspara you have the bones of something very good here. You pull the reader into a new situation that is intriguing and interesting, and the narrative voice is strong and sure. It has the feel of a first draft, because everything is told not shown, but scenes and dialogue don't really come into the equation until your completely confident of your characters, your situation and your structure. Ergo: it's a bloody good first draft and I hope you can maintain the promise of what's here in what follows:-) Shyama

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