Having spent a few years of my life living in Hong Kong and having taken the hydrofoil to the gambling kingdom of Macau on a couple of occasions the book ‘The Ballad of a small time player’ has particular resonance for me.
Thankfully I never had a gambling addiction like the one suffered by Lord Doyle the main character in this strange and absorbing book.
A man on the run from a criminal past with his luck running out he is befriended by a high-class courtesan and in a fashion falls in love, though not as in love with her as with the true love of his life gambling and in particular punto banco baccarat.This game is famously unskillful relying on nothing more than the luck of the player and is therefore prized by the gambler who plays to show he is lucky.
The gambling scenes are beautifully portrayed as is the backdrop of Macau and Hong Kong Island which a sinister cruel edge otherworldly almost ghostly.
The notion of the ghost is one that plays repeatedly throughout the book. Lord Doyle as white man is referred to as a ‘gweilo’, which means ghost man in Chinese, and as the book progresses he appears to be vanishing in front of our eyes.
Even his lover seems insubstantial and barely there, disappearing and reappearing throughout the book like a spirit from the afterlife.
The book doesn’t quite work in the sense that the relationship between Doyle and his call girl is not fully fleshed out enough as Lawrence Osborne seems more taken with the occasions than with the love affair but even with that Osborne is such a powerful and original writer the work burns itself into your memory.