The cover of The Understory by Saneh Sangsuk

Review: The Understory

The Understory
Saneh Sangsuk, translated by Mui Poopoksakul
Deep Vellum, March 2024, $17.95
How did I get this book? Library

There are a few basic questions to ask of any book, and The Understory answers them in intriguing ways. Questions like: Does this book use paragraphs? No! Is there a plot line to follow? Not so much! Is there flowing, entrancing narration from an elderly storyteller who is also Buddhist monk? Yes!

The most intriguing thing about The Understory is its structure, which I would describe as a spiral. Sangsuk begins at the outer rim of the spiral and sucks the reader into its center, like a narrative vortex. The opening of the novel situates the moment of the story being told by Luang Paw Tien by informing the reader of what has come to pass in the decades before and what will come to pass in the decades after. Specifically, the moment is 1967, and Tien, who is in his nineties, is telling the story of his early life.

The setting of the story is circumscribed to a village in Thailand and a farm on its outskirts, but the themes of the narrative range widely. Tien uses historical and political anchors as he leads the reader along the spiral, as well as lush nature writing. There are also periodic violent encounters with tigers, with each encounter changing Tien and everyone in his family at a molecular level.

From that decades-spanning opening Tien narrows the reader’s experience of time until, at the crucial scene near the end of the book, seconds seem to be parsed into fragments. The scope is narrow, time is stopped, and Tien falls through the center of the spiral.

Since Tien is telling the story, he survives the center and lives a long life. He is convincing enough as a storyteller that it’s easy to forget he and his tale are creations of Sangsuk’s imagination. The author’s style and structure in this novel slowly sucks the reader to its center and, like Tien, drops you through to the other side.

Mabel was instrumental in writing this review, according to her.

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