The terms ‘literary’ and ‘thriller’ go together about as well as ‘romantic’ and ‘slasher’. Often, what’s described as a literary thriller finds an equilibrium of mediocrity between the two. But Syjuco’s debut novel, in which Crispin Salvador – the most famous writer in the Philippines – is found dead in the Hudson River, runs at too much of a fever pitch to settle into equilibrium.
The book takes its title from the Filipino term for the country’s thinking (and well-off) class, of which Salvador is a card-carrying member. We’re led by Miguel, a protégé of Salvador’s who investigates both Salvador’s death and the simultaneous disappearance of the author’s unfinished manuscript, a book that was supposed to restore the once-great writer to the top of the literary game and reveal a host of juicy secrets about wealthy Philippine families.
That’s the skeleton of the story, but as Miguel researches Salvador’s family history, Syjuco dresses it with everything from over-the-top anecdotes (Salvador once cut a literary critic during a knife fight) to deep family history, reaching 150 years into Philippine past as Salvador’s family’s political past is revealed. Meanwhile, Miguel’s research takes him back to the islands, and into contemporary Manila.
The way Syjuco places his characters in the political pressure cooker of the Philippines’ political history achieves a disorienting mix of breadth and claustrophobia. The book picked up the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 and will likely be nominated further afield, as well.