Siamese Bestiarywritten & illustrated by
(1978) 2005 Second revised edition, index, 136 pp., 70 b & w drawings, 254 x 191 Softcover.
ISBN-10: 974-524-058-3 $23.00
Rediscovering pockets of pastoral peace
Book review by Steve Van Beek,
(The Bangkok Post, 26 March 2005)
Welcome reprint of a unique book on local fauna and flora which are brought to life in a series of charmingly perceptive sketches
When this book first emerged from a British publishing house in 1978, I was enchanted by it. The concept and the text were engaging and the illustrations were amazing, both in subject and execution.
A local publisher, Orchid Press, has chosen to re-issue it and as I reread it recently I was pleased to see that it has lost none of its freshness. It’s a timeless book about a timeless element of Thailand and the meticulously penned illustrations have lost none of their magic.
The inspiration that led Kristiaan Inwood to produce it was twofold. He had recently relocated to a house in a Thon Buri plantation and the move coincided with the birth of his first son, now a doctor. Struck by the prospect of becoming a father, faced with the newborn himself, and surrounded by the fecundity of nature, Inwood recorded his impressions in a series of vignettes that he illustrated with fine, pen-and-ink line drawings of the plants and animals that crossed his threshold and path.
This is not delicate nature, prettified into Disneyesque grace, but nature as it is: beautiful in its simplicity and in the fundamental life force it expresses, even when confrontations between one species and another erupt into violence. As such, it has an honesty and perspective not often found in personal accounts of the Kingdom.
I felt, on first reading, that no book in Thailand equalled it in approach or theme and wondered if another of its ilk would ever appear. In the 25-odd years since then, none has; Siamese Bestiary is unique. The author’s voice when musing on his helplessness in dealing with his tiny bundle of life—and his wisdom in seeing that his wife has an innate ability to cope with anything—rings true; anyone who has been a father will recognise it.
Inwood has also managed to meld that into an appreciation for all the plant and animal life that surrounds him. It is to his credit that he doesn’t seek surcease, to escape into it, but sees it as parallel with the life struggles his son is enduring. The reader can almost feel that, as Inwood was sketching a particular scene, his ear was ever-alert for cries of distress from the house; he is fully aware that he inhabits a microcosm of the broader world.
In this, the second edition, he has augmented both text and illustrations, enhancing the book through hindsight and wisdom gained in the intervening years. By and large, the book is better for it.
A word on the illustrations: They are superb but what makes them brilliant is not simply superior craftsmanship but that they are drawn from the inside out, as though the artist had observed his subjects for a long period, watching their moods and movements until he understood them thoroughly. Thus, the sinuosity of his serpents, the contorted stances of dogs, the portrait of a boatman silently pushing through a monsoon rainstorm on a dark night; they all reflect scenes the way we have seen them, the way they are.
In short, Siamese Bestiary remains a unique look at a quiet but everpresent aspect of Thai life at a time when Bangkok still embraced pockets of rural lushness. We city dwellers have concreted over much of this greenery but remnants can still be found, in compact copses, quiet ponds and unexpected places. Inwood helps us to rediscover it.
[Read a review & excerpts from Bangkok Airways In-flight Magazine] [Read a review from The Nation] [Read a second review from The Nation] [More Orchid Press Reviews]
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