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Book Review

Book Review: Garden of Hell

by Lang Reid

Garden of Hell (ISBN 978-974-93619-4-8, Silkworm Books, 2006) was written by Nick Wilgus, a senior sub-editor at the Bangkok Post, but in between subbing perhaps, he has written a series of mysteries featuring a Buddhist priest, Father Ananda, and his young novice, a crippled 13 year old boy named Jak.
Nick Wilgus has been a student of comparative religions, a former Franciscan and social worker and this book shows a great insight into pragmatic Thai Buddhism, where Father Ananda is prepared to bend the rules somewhat in the grey areas, in his search for the real truth. This is beautifully offset by the narrow viewpoint put forward by his young acolyte, as befits an early teenager in his personal search for the truth, in the black and white world that all teenagers live in.
The plot opens with Father Ananda and Jak going up-country to a wat which has a Buddhist-style theme park, full of exhibits designed to keep your average Buddhist on the straight and narrow. However, it was at this theme park that a young nun apparently threw herself into the crocodile pit. A very successful suicide, though Father Ananda, having once been a policeman before donning the orange robes, has his doubts.
His looking for clues takes him further into the day to day running of the temple and he finds there is more than religious devotions going on in this particular wat. There is a dark and mysterious secret that Father Ananda begins to slowly uncover, including the almost customary Thai networking of influential persons. The mafia is alive and well and functioning in places up-country.
The closeness of village life is ably demonstrated and the part the local policeman has to play, moving along the fine line of maintaining a suitable police presence to keep the villagers suitably happy, while the dark influences can then work without interruption. One can see just how the simple village people could be manipulated (as they have been so successfully, up until the recent coup which everyone hopes will stave off a populist putsch).
With his newspaper background, Nick Wilgus also introduces the media and the part it can play in exposing evil doings, especially the Thai media, which is never loathe to publish photographs of dead bodies on the front page, or people with severe injuries. (They may also be even more forceful now the permanent threat of litigation has been removed.)
Just how Father Ananda manages to keep his Buddhist faith going, in the midst of the subterfuge and double dealings of some of his supposedly pious brethren is also explored, and again this is contrasted against the lack of experience of the 13 year old Jak, and shows how they both come to terms with their personal situations.
Interestingly, one of Bangkok Post’s reviewers likened the book to Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, which was a similar thought to my own while reading the book. It is fast paced, keeps you guessing, introduces religious imagery and has believable characterizations. I really enjoyed this book and at B. 395 it is a very inexpensive read.