Book Reviews

Book Review: Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

 

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This book was reviewed via Netgalley

 

Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam is a beautiful and moving work of historical fiction based on the true story of the life of Anna Leonowens during one remarkable period in her life. Interspersed throughout the narrative are sketches, courtesy of Margaret Ayers. This novel was first published in 1944.

 

Anna Leonowens, recently widowed, is seeking a means of making income after the untimely death of her husband. Anna has spent nearly half her life in the Orient. She opens her doors to teach in Singapore, and is met with such success as she is called upon to serve as governess to the children of King Mongkut, ruler of Siam.

 

Anna agrees to the proposal, and sets sail for Siam. Her daughter Avis is headed off to school in England, but her young son, Louis, travels with her. From the start, there are problems, troubles that constantly give Anna pause to question the wisdom of this choice. First, it appears as if the King has forgot her. She spends months in the Kralahome’s residence, awaiting the King’s summons. When finally he does, he doesn’t want to honour her stipulation of a private house outside of the palace.

 

After much bother, Anna succeeds in gaining her new home, and begins to teach the King’s children, and those concubines that choose to learn. As time passes, Anna settles to the rhythm of harem life and begins to make friends. Among these are Son Klin and L’Ore, both of whom Anna was able to offer substantial help to. Another is Khun Thao Ap, a magistrate for the women’s city. And, in a manner of speaking, Anna develops an acquaintanceship with King Mongkut and his prime minister, the Kralahome.

 

In addition to teaching, Anna is also coerced into doing secretarial work for Mongkut, a task tacked on to her duties once she arrives in Siam. She also does translation work. Poor Anna is oft subject to the King’s whimsy, and woken mid-night that she might straight-away come to the Palace to translate something, or answer questions.

 

I cannot believe that I, who love historical fiction so, have never read this book, especially since I love this time era. Anna is a remarkable, strong woman who doesn’t crumble under the challenges she’s presented with. She’s a prime example of how women do not need a man to take care of them, and can succeed in the face of overwhelming odds.

 

There are many strong women in this story, to be sure. The judge, Khun Thao Ap. I love that she refused to be intimidated by the queen dowager. Son Klin, the cast aside concubine. L’Ore, the fierce bonds-woman who fled when her bond-price was offered and refused, contrary to law. Even Fa-Ying, the King’s treasured, sweet-natured daughter, a bright flame dimmed too young.

 

I do love that the primary cast and most important people of this story are women. Even Mongkut is a backdrop for Anna’s growth. I love that she challenges him when necessary, such as insisting to live outside the Palace. In addition to the above-mentioned female characters, I really like the Kralahome. Even though he seems aloof to Anna, and unruffled by her, he still works, as best he can, to give assistance when he may.

 

Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam is the basis for the play The King and I, as well as the more recent movie- Anna and the King- starring Chow Yun-Fat. This is a beautiful piece of narrative fiction. Being immersed in such a different culture was fascinating. How much is truth and how much speculation, well, that I don’t know, but I want to investigate more. It’s a fiction story. I’m quite sure creative license was taken.  I found the royal funerary practices particularly interesting. Likewise, the backdrop of political machinations, between Siam and England, and between Siam and France.

 

There were several imstances where names/ titles were hyphenated or capitalised in some places, but not others, which was a bit odd. Odder still, to me at least, though I’m sure there may have been a cultural context on the part of either the author or the era she was writing about, is the fact that once Anna and her son Louis reach Siam, Louis is sometimes referred to as ‘Boy’. This I did find very confusing at first.

????? Highly recommended for those who enjoy history and historical fiction.

 

 

 

*Ecerpt

Page 159-160:

Anna felt tears gathering in her own eyes. After all, who was she, one frail Englishwoman, to pit herself against this relentless despot and his crawling minions? She would not live in the Palace. She had better not stay and burst into undignified tears. That would reveal weakness, and here one could not afford to be weak. She could not wait for the King to terminate the interview! Better rude than weak! Taking Louis by the hand she turned and walked quickly back toward the brass door.
Voices behind her began to call. “Mem, Mem, Mem.” The King was beckoning and shouting. The tears were close to the surface now and she was shaking with nervousness. She bowed profoundly and hurried on through the oval door, head held high. thanks?
The Kralahome’s sister came bouncing after her in a distraction of rage, tugging at her cloak, shaking her finger in Anna’s face and crying, “Mai di, mai di.” Anna knew enough Siamese now to understand that simple phrase—“Bad, bad!”
But she walked on, outwardly serene, toward the farther gate which led to the river, ignoring the excited woman beside her. Her father and her husband had been soldiers of the Queen. She could not be bullied and coerced.
All the way up the river in the boat there were more “Mai di’s” and none of the “Good morning’s” of the earlier trip. Even up to the very door of her apartment Anna was followed by the outraged noblewoman who continued to pelt her with a hail of words she could not understand, interspersed with “Mai di, mai di, mai di.” But Anna’s mind was made up. She shut and locked her door firmly. Anger had burned out fear. Let them do what they would! She could resign her new position if she must! She would not live in the Palace.

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