The novel opens like a thriller. A British seaman waits in a seedy Manila hotel for a rich Filipino mafioso. He notices several things almost all at once: the dead phone, the peephole covered from the outside, rusty blood spatters on the bedsheet, a gunshot hole in the ceiling, a room with no exit. The Filipino don is in a car with his crew, weaving through the dark streets of the city, and the seaman takes out his gun, believing that they are coming to kill him.
Gunshots and a chase – the staples of action movies – but what reeled me in were the characters and their personal tragedies, and the fact that Garland set his story of one, stifling night in Manila.
Such a pleasure to read a familiar world, made new and intriguing by Garland’s compassionate treatment of his characters, his insights, and his crisp, clear, high-energy prose: Back in his room, some of the wetter stains on the street began to glow red as the sun dropped from the sky. Dropped, because the sun didn’t sink in these parts. At six-fifteen, the elastic that kept it suspended started to stretch, and at six-thirty the elastic snapped. Then you had just ten minutes as the orange ellipse plummeted out of view, and the next thing you knew it was night. You had to watch out for that in Manila. Ten minutes to catch a cab to the right side of town if you were on the wrong side.
Garland writes about Manila (and Negros and Quezon Province, in some flashbacks) as both an insider and an outsider. An outsider because he wasn’t born here, an insider because he’s been here, and has (presumably) learned much about the language and the culture. Because the familiar is made foreign (and the foreign made familiar) he sees and describes things I don’t normally pay attention to, like that rapidly sinking sun.
He obviously had fun with using Filipino words for places: Patay, Sugat, Sayang, Sarap. He also liked mentioning Filipino brand names whenever he could. Magnolia, Bench, Inquirer.
There are errors. You don’t write “Yes, po” if in your head the characters are speaking in Filipino (better stick with “Yes” or write the proper “Opo”), and you don’t say “Mang Don Pepe” because that’s an awkward double honorific (unless of course “Don” is the person’s first name).
But other than that, this is a highly readable book.
Very poignant. Unputdownable.
Note: I reposted this after tweaking a line following a comment in the original post. (Hi commenter; I have to agree that my use of foreigner/local is erroneous. Hence this edited post.)
I deleted the original post because I got upset, but decided to post it again and reply.
The comment ended with "Nothing rude about pointing out facts and finding cultural appropriation (or enabling thereof) ugly".
I guess by reading this book and praising this book I am now an enabler of cultural appropriation, and am now ugly. Well. I should say that I'm a Filipino living in the Philippines, and when I saw that this book is based in Manila, I only thought "ooh interesting". I went ahead and read it, and found the book very well-written and compassionate. I didn't feel any hatred toward Garland for even DARING to write about Filipinos.
I should say too that I write fiction and I wouldn't even think of writing about Americans in America because I am no American, and I've never been to America, and no amount of research will make me an American and make me write accurately about America. I write about Filipinos in the Philippines. I write about what I know.
But If you're a non-Filipino who wants to write a story with Filipino characters, I don't think I'll stop you.
Or should I?
Sorry for rambling. I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter. :)