Jane Vejjajiva, The Happiness of Kati (2003, translation by Prudence Borthwick, Atheneum 2006)
This book is a rarity: a children’s book written in Thai and translated into English. Perhaps that’s why it was recommended to me. It’s short, and I decided to read it as a gap-filler while waiting for another Book Group member to finish with my copy of Truth. This may not have been a mistake, but I do regret the disrespect: the book certainly wasn’t written to be a gap filler.
At the start of the book Kati is nine years old and living with her grandparents. Her parents are noticeably absent, and the absence of her mother is particularly stark because each of the first several short chapter headings has a subheading that mentions her. The first chapter, for instance, is ‘Pan and Spatula’ with a subheading, ‘Mother never promised to return.’ The chapter has quite a lot to say about the pan and spatula Grandmother uses to cook rice, but is silent about Mother. Just as one is beginning to think Mother must be dead, it turns out that she is very ill, and there’s the possibility of visiting her. It’s a very effective device – and the complete silence about Kati’s father, which lasts quite a bit longer, gains power from it.
I don’t think it’s too spoilerish to say that Kati’s mother has motor neurone disease (or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, as it’s called in this US translation), and that she dies. I won’t go further into spoiler territory, except to say that if this were an Australian or US book, there would very probably be a big emotional death scene towards the end of the book, but here the death happens so quietly that I wasn’t sure it had happened until a couple of paragraphs later, and it comes at about two-thirds of the way through the book. This unexpected structure, as much as the unfamiliar food, plants and family relationships, made me aware I was engaging with a mind from a different culture. I enjoyed it and I’m glad it slipped through the net to reach English-speaking young people – though I notice that my copy was withdrawn from the Albany NY Public Library less than four years after publication without much wear and tear, suggesting that it didn’t reach very many of them.