This Isn’t Just a Souvenir (by Ki Hyun Park)

This is a novella from the pen of Ki Hyun inspired by an extended trip to Southeast Asia. The author summarises the book as follows.

Sam’s girlfriend disappears in a tsunami. While searching for her in Southeast Asia, he uncovers a plot to assassinate the Dalai Lama. In order to stop the revolutionary group known as R.E.I.N. from succeeding, he must become one of them.

“This Isn’t Just a Souvenir” is both a backpacking story and a philosophical journey. As Sam travels through the party circuit of Southeast Asia, he encounters interesting characters who test their own sense of meaning against his own. Whether it’s Jergen, the nihilistic scuba diver fighting to save the coral reefs, or Jackie, the thrill-seeking Aussie girl running away from love, this novel is packed with adventure and interesting stories from the road.

In the end, it’s a book that asks how we can negotiate the challenges of living in a beautiful world that seems on the verge of destruction while looking for light in the darkest places.

Ki Hyun has a unique writing style and some of the descriptive passages are quite moving and inspiring. This novella is part travelogue, part cultural, and part thriller. The dialogue I found difficult in places to understand and follow – but that may be a generational issue!

Not sure if this is intentional but I found the narrative darkly comic at times. For example, one of the characters is a local politician seeking an election called Candidate Dim. Candidate Dim is loosely based on Donald Trump. At times it is laugh out loud: “Bee resembles a poodle you might want to copulate with. She wears a bright yellow top and a white tennis skirt. She seems uncomfortable with English and lets Louis do most of the talking.

On too many occasions the descriptive sections become challenging to enjoy – here is a sample: “We ride with every window open, boys pushing the bus out of mud holes, all of us laughing as we bound off the bus to help. Jacky’s eye catches mine over her shoulder at me as we push against the back of the bus like the one blue and green planet in the galaxy peeking over the lunar dust of a blood moon.” and here is another extract “I’m just another note in the music, written upon the radiant sheets, all these floating donuts playing melody, dotting a river of sheet music as we pass in a stream”. Images I just could not fathom!

We learn a lot about the culture and religions of Southeast Asia and the exuberance of youth with much partying and indulgence in drugs and alcohol. That is counterbalanced by some philosophical observations that are quite interesting. The story leads to an encounter with the Dalai Lama and his search for his lost love is resolved although it is no surprise after the earlier bonking of his flirty travel mate Jacky.

Overall. I would like editing of some of the more challenging descriptive passages, development of the characters, and more attention to plot themes – but it is a novella afterall! In summary, a satisfying but challenging read.

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