“When in Bangkok,” by Erika Krouse, appears in the Nov/Dec 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review
Erika Krouse’s harrowing story “When in Bangkok” contains an honest-to-God villain, a chilling adversary for our narrator, twelve-year-old Elsa. How Krouse pulls this off without mustache-twirling cartoonishness, or wallowing in darkness, is one of the many things I am impressed and fascinated by in this story.
The morning after we landed in Bangkok, my father tossed some baht onto the restaurant table without counting it. Enough eating, he said. My sister and I stood immediately, still chewing.
But the girls haven’t finished their breakfast, my mother said, and got up to file out of the hotel restaurant behind us.
The father is imperious, at best. The children have learned to be compliant. The mother protests, but ineffectually. Indeed, the sentence doesn’t even read “ . . . my mother said, but got up to file out of the hotel restaurant behind us.” It reads, “and got up to file out . . . ” The mother’s protest and acquiescence are the same routine gesture. Krouse makes the family dynamics immediately apparent, and immediately worrisome.
The story continues, “Our hotel was only two blocks from the Patpong district in Bangkok. Patpong was a different place during the day. All the bar girls slouched around in flip flops and dirty tank tops.” Why this choice of hotel, in this neighborhood, the reader wonders, for a family vacation?
As the family hurries down the street, trying to keep up with the father, the mother asks him what he’s looking for. A bathroom?
Less than a page into the story, both reader and mother understand that this is wishful thinking. What exactly the father is looking for becomes clear soon after, and the knowledge is horrific.
The father in “When in Bangkok” is monstrous, more so than most of the characters I’ve read in my time at KR, and part of what fascinates me about this story is how quickly the reader knows it, and how clearly his family has known it, for years and years before the story starts. There’s a reveal in these pages, but it’s not of the father’s true nature, and certainly not of any hidden vulnerabilities. The trip to Bangkok is not a vacation or departure from his true self, or an occasion for questioning, as in so many stories that use foreign backdrops for a character’s self-reckoning. A monster is still a monster wherever he travels, and what’s left to be revealed is the depths of his cruelty, of how thoroughly he’s trapped his wife and daughters. If this were the only or main subject of the story, all that would propel the reader along would be a voyeuristic, “How bad can this get?”
But Krouse isn’t just interested in revealing monsters. She’s more interested in discovering how the people closest to them survive. The mother stays agreeable, trying to earn small favors. The elder sister is “here, but not here.” Our narrator, the younger daughter, is still asking questions: How does she live with what she knows and what has happened to her? Can she find a way to make someone else acknowledge what they know but will not say aloud? Can she even find a way to fight back?
That the answer to the last question is “yes” comes as a joyful, relieving surprise. “When in Bangkok” is a harrowing read, but Krouse manages to provide a sense of release, even triumph, at the end of it—one of many ways Krouse shows us how a story can start dark and descend deeper, while leaving both characters and readers with light left to discover.