“Why does nobody believe that I saw the evil spirit that day? They make offerings to phantoms, and yet when I offer them actual proof of one, they laugh in my face!”
Kinnara by Kevin Ansbro is a charming book with a delightful tone and a happy ending. It interweaves magical realism, mythology, and travel narrative with a story of young love. It takes place half in England and half in Thailand, and is told from a series of alternating perspectives – including that of a majestic mythological creature who has been turned into stone and cast into the sea for thousands of years. The story centers three characters: Sawat, an enterprising young Thai man who sells sodas to beachside tourists for a living; Calum, a twenty-something tourist who visits Thailand from his home of England; and Hannah, Calum’s old friend from high school who reappears as a romantic interest now that they’re both a little more mature.
The novel opens when Calum and Hannah are mere teenagers, in the early years of high school. Distantly, they both perceive some sort of romantic tension – or at least, Hannah does. Calum still doesn’t quite perceive the spark between the two, and Ansbro is quick to point out that we can blame that on thick teenage male skulls. Ansbro’s adult perspective on teenage drama offers a lighthearted but still empathetic look into the mind of a fifteen-year-old, which charmed and entertained me as I remembered my own teenage frustrations.
Calum meets Sawat, who vends cold beverages to tourists on the beach, on his solo vacation to Thailand and the two immediately become fast friends. Sawat hesitantly shares with Calum the story of his terrifying and otherworldly encounter with a “ghost” and “evil spirit” who lies beneath the sea off the coast of Phuket. While drinking together on his last night in Thailand, Calum starts a bar fight and Sawat comes to his aid, but only Sawat, the Thai resident, will reap the consequences of Calum’s aggression. Returning home to England, Calum rekindles things with Hannah, oblivious to the fact that he has unintentionally caused his friend back in Thailand great harm and personal distress. A year later, Calum brings Hannah to Thailand to celebrate their one-year anniversary, and discovers that this “ghost” beneath the sea may hold the key to undoing the damage he’s wrought in his friend Sawat’s life – but Calum must make a great sacrifice in the process. Can Calum be the hero he wants to be for his friend’s sake? Or will temptation ruin his attempt to save his friend?
Despite the apparent seriousness of his subject matter, Ansbro’s tone is light and good-natured. He gently teases all his characters throughout the novel, making easy jokes to point out the one-sided, shortsighted nature of our all-too-human perspectives. He ribs Calum equally for not noticing Hannah’s attentions, and then turns around and gently nudges Hannah for her teenage melodrama. Sawat, Calum, and Hannah are all attentive, insightful characters, quick to tease but equally quick to come to each other’s aid.
Ansbro’s narrative jumps about in time a fair bit, and he shifts perspectives with ease. I enjoyed these leaps and jumps, as they put us in the minds of many different kinds of characters and enabled him to incorporate short bits of folklore that created an engaging backdrop for the present-day narrative.
The lighthearted tone of the book was quite possibly my favorite thing about it; second in line came the animism, mythology and folklore woven throughout. I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say this book fits under the category of “magical realism”, which in my mind is a bit different than urban fantasy. Magical realism, to me, is when magical things are described as if they are perfectly ordinary, everyday things, whereas urban fantasy or modern mythology is where magical things that are described as being quite extraordinary take place in the ordinary world. This book, to me, is more urban fantasy than magical realism. And no matter what you call it, I loved it!
I would eagerly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys books about travel, folklore, urban fantasy, or mythology. An enjoyable read overall!
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