Thursday, June 5, 2014
Review: THE BALLAD OF A SMALL PLAYER, by Lawrence Osborne
"Sometimes one can feel that one has suddenly lost something that one never had in the first place. It just slips out of the hand and breaks."
This sentence appears about halfway through the haunting new novel by travel writer and novelist Lawrence Osborne but its message and impersonal tone could be said to sum up the entire story. An Englishman on the run from the law and from himself, an ordinary man who styles himself "Lord" Doyle, is hiding out in the casinos and hotels of Macau, playing baccarat but really playing at winning and losing himself and his soul.
Baccarat is his favorite game because the way he plays it, it is pure chance. Nine is the magic number, and soon he finds himself on an unprecedented winning streak. But before he gets there he becomes besotted with a mysterious prostitute who is not what she seems. He falls ill and they spend a hazy time in her apartment; she feeds him, takes care of him and he wallows in this reverie until reality in the form of his gambling addiction takes hold again. Then he must navigate his way out of the dream and find out what's real, what will break and what won't.
I loved this book less than his first novel, The Forgiven, which had a stronger plot, but I was still entranced by this moody travelogue and tale of desperation and love. Osborne uses his travel-writing skills to immerse the reader in the setting- the smoky hallways and shady characters come alive, along with the bland hotel rooms, impersonal restaurants and overwhelming atmosphere of loneliness. The Ballad of a Small Player is above all a book for the senses and I'd recommend it to armchair travelers and those intrigued by slow simmering suspense and illusion.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review.