For the Joy of Reading: The Ballad of a Small Player

This is a disturbing book, which I am sure is the author’s intention.   It is very unsettling.   It is about the disintegration of a life through an addiction to gambling.   It is about much more than that though.   It’s main character calls himself Lord Doyle and lives in Macau.   He is not actually Lord Doyle.   This is a character that he has made up.   It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that he is a solicitor on the run because he has robbed the account of one of his clients, a rich widow from Hayward’s Heath in Sussex.   The crime is only reported in passing as an explanation of how he got to Macau.   The crux of the story is that Lord Doyle’s life is so meaningless, so uneventful. so lacking in human contact, that he has to seek a thrill in the excitement of gambling, of baccarat in particular, and that this turns into an addiction.

If you are looking for a book with a thrilling story, such as Casino Royale, you will be disappointed.    Not much happens.   There are no real villains, unless you count the staff at the baccarat tables.   Lord Doyle moves from casino to casino, more or less as the whim takes him.  What grips is that you are watching a man move inexorably towards disaster.   There is hope along the way.   The question is simple.   Is this hope based on our foolishness?   Can an addiction be overcome?   What effect will Lord Doyle have upon the people that he meets along the way – Dae-Ming, Adrian, Grandma?   That, of course, is the nub of the story, and so you will have to read the book to find out.   I am not going to tell you.

Lawrence Osborne has constructed his story with great care.   Each sentence is considered and carefully put together.   The story flows.   Although Lord Doyle is not in the least sympathetic, and nor are most of the other characters in the book, you care about him, and especially about Dae-Ming.   As a reader, you will want to know what happens to them.   At least, I did.   And you will care about their fate.    At least, I did.

This is not an easy book to read, in the sense that the story gives a hard lesson about humankind.   It does not have a great opinion of humanity.   It is not a paean to survivorhood.   It is bleak and uncompromising.   It does not offer hope or, at least, not very much.   It gives a view of our banality that is disturbing.   It is not an easy book to read.

But if we are to overcome such banality, to deal with our selfishness, then we need stories like this to tell us what we are confronting.   The way to improving our condition lies in understanding ourselves.   This book helps us to do that.

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