This farang enjoyed Currency.
Zoe Zolbrod’s debut novel is a fantastic, sensual romp through Southeast Asia. It is a novel of naïve ambition and desire. We get Piv: the street-hustling, smooth-talking Thai tourist guide who dreams of starting his own import/export business. There’s Robin Miatta, an American backpacking through Asia, maxing her credit cards, unwilling to go home, searching for meaning in her own life. Falling for each other, the two take advantage of lucrative opportunities with Abu and Volcheck, both Black Market dealers of endangered animals and artifacts. What follows is a tour de force portrayal by a serious author of the realities of modern-day smuggling and those involved in these activities. Currency not only succeeds in its scope and in-depth research, but also in its fluid, energetic, and intriguing prose.
Structurally, the novel’s chapter-by-chapter seesaw from first-person to third-person worked relatively well, though I found Piv’s first-person episodes the most interesting. As stated earlier, the prose of Currency is kinetic and vibrant, as this example clearly shows:
Everyone’s age seemed all wrong. The limbs of men poked out of boys who otherwise looked so young that they gave the place a freshman dorm feel, their pink ankles and wrists like puttied elastic, while impish patchwork caps sat atop faces creased into middle age by years of sun and drugs.
Zolbrod offers her own unique blend of allusion, splendor, and romanticism. She slaloms readers through exotic locales – Khao San Road, Bangkok, Ko Samet, Ko Phangan, Kanchanaburi – and introduces fascinating colloquial terms – farang (foreigner), jairong (heartless), suay (bad luck), su-ay (beautiful). We hold rare rhinoceros horns in our hands; hear the swish, the snap of stolen, treasured turtles; even learn the proper way to bundle snakes into stockings to form a bracelet, stuff them in our pants like Piv, in case we ever feel the need to smuggle reptiles onto a plane for some cool, hard cash.
In terms of characterization, it’s hard to swallow Piv as the dashing, Don Juan type that Robin falls in love with due to what she describes as his “cool beauty.” A Thai loverboy? Doesn’t work for me. In fact, his is a tragic character that ends up like Coleridge’s Mariner, forced back to his place of origin as the novel ends, cursed to tell his tale.
Still, if you’re ready to backpack through the grandeur of places such as Wat Si Chum, Phra Pai Luang, Sang Khawat; if you’re ready to fall in love, brave Interpol, deal on the Black Market with Piv, Robin – heck, dance the “Macarena,” even – Zoe Zolbrod’s Currency will not disappoint you.