First of all, I should declare an interest. As regular readers will know, I won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary in 2008, an award set up in Luke’s memory, and winning that award launched my career as a writer.
So you could say I was predisposed to like The Body is a Temple, the novel he wrote in the early 2000s but which is now being published for the first time. But I offer my review of the book anyway, and have tried to be as objective as I can.
The novel is set in Thailand and Hong Kong, where the author spent an extended gap year. It’s very fast-paced, beginning from the very first page when Josh and his Thai girlfriend Lek are chased around their apartment by a violent and angry loan shark. After that there’s a motorbike chase, and a fight, and it continues like that all the way through, as Josh gets attacked and threatened and pulled into drug deals that turn sour.
But that’s not really what the book is about. To me, at least, it’s more about Josh’s attempts to break free from his surroundings, and to create a better life for himself and Lek. Right at the beginning, before the loan shark crashes in, we’re presented with the image of a salmon swimming upstream:
Thrusting forward. Falling back. Jumping up. Crashing back down. Never quite making it.
Again at various quieter moments, Josh returns to this sort of thinking and makes efforts to extricate himself, but is always pulled back into the violence and craziness either by his own weakness, his connections with his friends, or by sheer force of circumstance.
When he first arrived in Bangkok, Josh thought he had the best possible life. He drank and partied his way around the city, and his friend found him work as a male prostitute, which he thought was fantastic:
Getting paid to have sex… I used to think that was the ultimate job. It was, for a while. When we first did it, it was a buzz wasn’t it?
But since then he’s grown up, and wants something different. He’s in love with Lek, and he wants to protect her and her daughter. He wants to be a better person, a better man, a husband and a father. He wants to work as a fitness instructor, not a gigolo. But he’s in debt to a loan shark, and being threatened by a drug dealer, and he has to keep having sex for money while he works out an escape route. He’s stuck in an older version of his life that has long since lost its appeal, and is struggling to shed his skin and move on to something better.
It’s a theme I recognised from Luke’s debut novel, White Summer. That book also features a young man trying to be a better person but struggling to achieve it, held back by old coping mechanisms like a tendency to seek refuge in alcohol (a trait Josh in this novel also shares). It’s really about finding a place in the world, a kind of coming-of-age novel but for twenty-somethings, people who’ve already created some version of an adult life but went down the wrong path and are trying to reverse course. In both cases, falling in love is the catalyst for this change, and so both books are also romance novels of a kind.
As with all books, different readers will get different things out of The Body is a Temple. Some will love the action and adventure and fights and chases, but that’s not really my thing. I related to the underlying quest in the book, the character’s quest to grow up and change his life and be a better person. I’d have preferred more focus on Josh and Lek’s relationship and less on the thriller/suspense part. But you’ll probably find reviews saying the opposite too.
Have you read The Body is a Temple, or anything else by Luke Bitmead? Do you think you will?
For a recent post that talks more about the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and Luke’s life and death, click here.