Millionaire Chinese gamblers, high-class Mongolian escorts, drunken Englishmen — these are the kind of characters who populate Lawrence Osborne’s hypnotic new novel, The Ballad of a Small Player. Set in the hotels and casinos of Macau, a former Portuguese colony where ostentatious 21st century glamour meets the faded charms of old Asia, the novel traces the trajectory of a compulsive gambler, the self-styled “Lord” Doyle, a man who seems addicted to failure. “Everyone knows that you are not a real player until you secretly prefer losing,” he asserts at the beginning of the novel.
But his fortunes are about to change: The tawdry existence he has eked out for himself at the Hotel Lisboa will be shot to pieces by a combination of outrageous luck, chance meetings, betrayal and ghosts — yes, ghosts, because all this takes place in China, where the locals take their superstitions seriously. Phantoms are not the only things that hover over Doyle, however — he is haunted, too, by his past, which is every bit as murky as his future appears to be.
Doyle is in Macau following a sudden flight from England after being accused of embezzlement, a crime of which he was clearly guilty. What is less clear is the reason for his actions. Osborne’s depiction of the stultifying snobbery of Middle England is razor-sharp in its insights, but class prejudice alone is not enough to explain Doyle’s decision to steal from an elderly client: Something more primeval eats away at his psyche, an inexplicable desire to overstep the boundaries simply because he is able to, even though he is fully aware of the consequences. In both his initial felony and his subsequent gambling, he acts almost as if under a spell, and much of his behavior treads a fine line between powerlessness and calculation.
The unexplained figures strongly in the novel — Doyle doesn’t understand why he cries when talking about changing his life with Dao-Ming, the woman who comes to the rescue when luck deserts him; he doesn’t know quite why he leaves her to return to gambling; he doesn’t know why he decides to play one last hand at the end of a winning streak. This makes for compelling reading: We want not just to make sense of the unknown — we hover just on the edge of understanding of Doyle’s actions — but we are also dragged onto the roller coaster of his knowing recklessness.
The life of a gambler is always going to make for an exciting read — I spent much of my time silently screaming “Don’t!” — but in Osborne’s hands, the moments of suspense are handled with so much skill that we sometimes read them more as memoir than elements of a thriller. The crescendo of one tense scene at the heart of the novel involves a cutaway to a memory from Doyle’s childhood in Sussex, a flashback so delicate and precise that it becomes fully enmeshed in the sweaty-palm present at the Macau casino.
Doyle’s tenuous existence in this netherworld drives the novel. He is caught between two cultures, unable to be part of either, just like the Hungry Ghosts of Chinese mythology that he speaks of — those spirits who never found what they needed to survive in life. A sense of dislocation washes through the book, not just in Doyle’s rootlessness but that of the other brilliantly drawn characters as well. For example the ruthless gambler known to the bankers and players simply as “Grandma,” who wins all of Doyle’s money one evening. She is trapped in an unhappy marriage to a wandering husband who allows her to spend his money as she wishes. Like Doyle’s, hers is a life that is suspended between two realities, neither completely happy nor completely sad, but wholly unfulfilling.
Macau and Hong Kong feel vivid and true in the novel, yet also otherworldly: Well-known landmarks and weather conditions are captured with a stillness and beauty that make them feel haunting and melancholy. Throughout the novel, food is consumed copiously and recorded in joyful detail, very much in keeping with local habits, yet Doyle’s hunger also seems desperate and unnerving. But ultimately it is the uncertain fate of Doyle and the others that made me as a reader feel strangely fulfilled. The decisions they make seem connected to the thrilling and terrifying changes taking place around them. Old ways collide with a brash new world, and in this game, it is not yet clear which will emerge the winner.
Tash Aw’s latest novel is Five Star Billionaire.