This book made me think hard about my quest to read a book set in every country in the world. I'd decided not to limit myself to books written by a native of the country. Many of the books I choose are, but it's rare that I read one like this: not only by someone from the country, but written in that country's language for people in that country and only later translated to English. Judging by this book's obscurity in the English-speaking world (apparently it's a major classic in Thailand, but you'd never know it from the number of reviews on English-language websites), that's no surprise. But a likely reason for its obscurity is English-speaking readers' skepticism about foreign books in translation. We're not sure they'll be accessible, let alone any fun. (After my wonderful local library refused to buy this one because it's--and I quote--"more academic and would be better suited to a university library," I was skeptical myself.)
Now you know where I'm coming from, I'll say: in many ways this book was a pleasant surprise. I did, in fact, enjoy reading it, and found it surprisingly accessible. But, also, I can understand its obscurity in the English-speaking world.
Four Reigns follows the life of a woman named Phloi (pronounced "Ploy") during the reigns of four kings of Thailand--from age 10, when she and her mother go to live in the women's palace, until her death 54 years later. Readers see the enormous changes that happened in Thailand (and the outside world) between 1892 and 1946. The pace is leisurely, and much of the book focuses on Phloi's everyday life, but it kept my interest and in fact I read through it quickly. Despite producing more than its share of typos, the translation is very readable and does a good job of concisely explaining the essentials to foreign readers without turning the novel into a textbook. There is a lot of cultural and historical detail, presented in an engaging way.
One of the things that most stands out about this book a couple months after finishing it is just how nostalgic it is. To a certain extent, and especially since the author was himself a politician and even prime minister of Thailand, one has to wonder about its accuracy. For instance, Rama V (the book's first king) is apparently universally loved, and when he dies, the whole country feels bereaved. It's impossible for me to judge what's plausible in Thailand 100 years ago, so I'll just point out that the setting feels idealized at times, but that it's valuable to read books written for a completely different cultural sensibility than my own.
Probably because of that nostalgia, the characters feel less real at the beginning of the book than they do by the end. It's difficult to get a sense of who the young Phloi is; she can feel like a placeholder for a Thai man's vision of an ideal Thai woman. She's the sort of young woman who unquestioningly agrees to marry the man her father chooses for her, and obligingly falls in love with him; the sort of woman who joyfully adopts her husband's illegitimate son. (Her young life is still interesting enough to read about, but she doesn't have much complexity at that point.) But by the time she reaches middle age--when the culture changes and she's left hopelessly behind the times, struggling to accept her children's choices with good grace and to keep her family together--she emerges as a vivid and believable character. Across the board, the characters seem to become more complex and lifelike as they age, such that the book truly benefits from covering so much time.
The one weird thing about the book's span is that the timeline is a bit confused, with the number of years passing during each reign not quite matching the number of years that seem to pass in the lives of Phloi and her family and friends. The most obvious example: her son Ot is born at the beginning of Rama VI's 15-year reign; at the end of it he's returning home after graduating from college in England. (Wait a minute....) Meanwhile, Phloi seems to be about 22 by the end of the first reign, when mathematically she should be 28.
Overall, this is a good book.... for those who are interested in Thailand specifically, or in world fiction generally. While slow-paced, it's compelling and immersive, providing an excellent window into a culture.