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The Noble Path by Peter May

Having enjoyed May’s Lewis trilogy and Lockdown (which was written fifteen years ago and rushed to publication because of the pandemic) I thought I would give this one a go. Also written decades ago and then re-edited to exclude some sex scenes, it’s set in London, Thailand and Cambodia – during the reign of the terrifying Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.

While I knew this might be difficult reading in that what the poor Cambodians suffered during those bleak years is just shocking, I also have a vested interest in contemporary Cambodia. Not only do I support a school in the provinces, but have a lovely sponsored child there both of whom I visit, with like-minded friends who also have children and help this school, every year.  I’ve also been to Thailand often. I girded my loins ready for what I suspected might be a punishing read.

It was, but not for the reasons I anticipated. This was such a predictable, cliched read that relied far too heavily on reductive stereotypes (gender, sexual, cultural, familial) to tell its story as well as giving a sort of nod to 1980s action flicks. At least, that’s what it felt like.

Focussed mainly on disgraced British army officer, Jack Elliot, whose employed as a mercenary to go into Cambodia and rescue a wealthy refugee’s family from the Khmer Rouge, it also explores his daughter’s efforts to find the father she never knew was alive.

While there are moments that are heartfelt and gripping (some of the scenes in Cambodia wrench your heart our of your chest) and do remind us of the horror of those times, I also found it gratuitous in parts. The villains, especially the Thai people (Jack has to enter Cambodia through Thailand and rely on a dubious set of networks to admit him. His daughter is also drawn into the web these people weave), were portrayed in such a negative and racist way that it was hard to stomach. I’m all for terrible villains and not one to spare cultural sensitivities when it comes to a good story – providing they don’t simply reproduce already negative and, frankly, inaccurate tropes. But herein lies the problem, I’m not convinced this is a good story and feel it might have been better off left as the anachronism it clearly is, not republished. That’s how it read to me, as something out of time – as a book that relies too heavily on clichés and overblown cultural, gendered and sexual stereotypes (including masculine braggadocio), about how the white guy, even one as morally compromised as Jack, can still be the great (white) hero and basically do better what no Thai or Cambodian person evidently could. James Bond he ain’t – just a wannabe but without the wink and the nod that so often accompanies 007’s missions and actions.

I know I’m not explaining myself lucidly, but whereas parts of the book read very well, other parts bordered on offensive and exploitative – using the misery of a nation and its people as fodder for what could have been an excellent tale.

It’s not without merit. As I said, some scenes were genuinely affecting and plot is interesting, but overall, I wish it hadn’t been republished and that I’d perhaps picked it up knowing it was written long ago, in a different time. Maybe, I would have been more generous. Maybe the book should have been titled, The Ignoble Path.

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