Rating: 9.3 (out of 10)
When we read stories, we are driven by a desire for closure, but we also long to have our satisfaction deferred until it is earned. We feel cheated if closure comes too soon, so the success of any story depends on keeping us in a protracted state of suspense as much as releasing that tension in a gratifying way. These contradictory impulses – a desire for the end and for making the end desirable – were dubbed “textual erotics” by the literary theorist Peter Brooks, a term that applies in both a literal and theoretical sense when discussing Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s new novella, Winterglass.
Nuawa Dasaret has known that her life was a story since the age of six, when her mother saved her from execution by putting a shard of the Winter Queen’s mirror in her heart. From that moment on, her story could only end one way – with Nuawa assassinating the Winter Queen and liberating her homeland of Sirapirat from the monarch’s brutal, icy reign. Being a story, though, there are detours and digressions, particularly in the form of General Lussadh, the Queen’s right hand, charged with finding all the glass-bearers. Nuawa’s attraction to Lussadh, which is reciprocated, causes her to question exactly what conclusion would satisfy her desire.
Both Lussadh and Nuawa are aware that the engines that power their respective stories are fragile, that satisfaction is more complicated than simply finding closure. Nuawa, who makes her living as a fighter, enters a tribute tournament that would, if she wins, land her in the service of the Winter Queen. When Lussadh discovers that Nuawa is the last glass-bearer, she knows she could simply bring Nuawa directly to the Winter Queen and fulfill her charge, but is compelled to learn more about Nuawa, and to get closer to her. Nuawa herself must suppress the ever-present desire to strike out at her nation’s conqueror when she is near; others have tried and failed, and Nuawa needs to understand why or else she risks failure too.
Sriduangkaew’s prose carries an intense lyricism that flirts with decadence, and often writers like this – who push and pull words like a photographer or painter manipulates colors – can lead readers down an aesthetic rabbit hole that loses sight of fictions other goals. Sriduangkaew herself has been guilty of this on occasion, but not so with Winterglass. With her best stories, she knows what stimulates our need to consume them, our desire to earn their riches. That the characters in Winterglass know it too is a flourish just delicate enough to savor.