“The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi: A good book made even better by great narration

windup girl“The Windup Girl” made quite a splash when it came out. It won the Nebula and the Hugo and it was the author’s debut novel (although he’d written four previous novels that he couldn’t get published).

I bought a copy when it came out in paperback but I struggled so much with all the strange Thai names and words in the first chapter that I put it to one side and somehow it never came back to the top of the reading pile.

When I saw that there was an Audible Frontiers version, read by Jonathan Davis, who did such a good job reading “Theiftaker”, I decided to give it another try.

“The Windup Girl” is set in a far future Bangkok and is written from the point of view of five different characters: three men an American from one of the calorie companies that controls the world’s food supply, a Malay Chinese refugee who has lost everything, a Thai Captain in the Environment Ministry who passionately defends his country; and two women, a Thai subordinate to the Captain who has her own agenda and a New Person, the Windup Girl of the title, who was manufactured in Japan.,

Jonathan Davis gives each of them a distinctive voice, in the right accent. He performs rather than simply narrating. He clearly studied the text carefully. Every inflection supports the author’s meaning. He pronounces the many foreign words and formal titles with an easy familiarity that made me feel part of the landscape. The production standards are high. The music is appropriate. This is a movie for the ear.

The book turned out to be everything I had hoped for. Bacigalupi (the name is Italian and means “kiss of the wolf. I know this because John Irving used it for his main writer character in “One Night At Twisted River”. I wonder if he’s ever read “The Windup Girl?) has created a plausible future in an exotic (to me) setting. It is a hard world and the main characters all face the same challenge: deciding what they are prepared to do to survive and having to live with the person they become with each survival decision they make.

The book has a good plot and strong local colour but at its heart it is character driven.The characters do not divide easily into good or bad. They are products of their pasts who, under the extreme pressure of their current circumstances, have to decide what they really value and what they are prepared to sacrifice to get it. Some of the characters are hard to like but all of them feel real and all of them, even the most selfish and fear-driven, won my sympathy.

Bacigalupi is willing to be truly brutal when the story demands it. The sex show that the Windup Girl is forced to perform is graphic and detailed and completely devoid of any trace of eroticism. In a land where keeping face is everything, Bacigalupi show us that this performance is about humiliation, shame and power. One of the characters is forced to make a public apology. Coming from the West this didn’t strike me as a big deal. Bacifalupi put me far enough inside the Thai character’s head that I was shocked at the vicious, merciless annihilation of the man’s pride and identity.

It’s a long book, more than nineteen hours of listening, but it seemed to fly by and I regretted reaching the end simply because I had enjoyed it so much.

Read this book if you’re in the mood for something thought provoking, difficult but fundamentally human

If you’d like to listen to an extract from “The Windup Girl”, click on the SoundCloud link below

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