Thailand: just the word brings exotic images to mind Bangkok, jungles, temples. It's easy to forget that real people live in this Southeast Asian country, people who have to do everyday things, like earn a living, cook dinner or go to school. In her new novel, Silk Umbrellas, author Carolyn Marsden brings this foreign land vividly to life for the young reader through the story of 11-year-old Noi. On those days when school is rained out, Noi stays with Kun Ya, her grandmother, painting silk umbrellas.
The time they spend together is idyllic, almost magical. Not only does Noi learn to paint, she learns to see and feel the images as she commits them to the fragile umbrellas that her grandmother has sold in the village marketplace for years. Along with the gentle give and take between the gifted teacher and budding student, many more things are going on in young Noi's life. Her father, a brick maker, and mother, who sews mosquito netting, are struggling to make ends meet. Her beloved grandmother takes to her bed during the rainy season and is unable to continue her work with the umbrellas. When Noi's older sister, Ting, takes a tedious job in a radio factory to help the family make money, Noi begins to think hard about her own future. Will she also come home exhausted, eyes burning from the strain of seeing the tiny parts? Or does the Buddha have something else in mind for her?
Marsden's subtle descriptions of the inner life of a budding artist and young child in contemporary Thailand move this book from the ordinary to the extraordinary. She writes about the country with authority, juxtaposing its modern economy with ancient rituals and capturing the tension that exists there between the old and the new. Readers of all ages will be drawn to young Noi as she tries to find her way in a world that is rapidly changing.