By Zoe Zolbrod
OV Books, 2010
Reviewed by Caitlin Horrocks
Photo elements by TANAKA

Piv’s “specialty” is farang, or foreign, women, off whom he ekes out a living of drinks and free hotel stays. He speaks fluid but idiosyncratic English, learned in the guesthouses of Bangkok’s tourist district: “I can learn something for my future there— how to make business, how to make something international.”

In a country where the poorest foreign travelers are richer than the locals, Piv manages to fall for Robin, a twenty-something American backpacker with maxed-out credit cards and parents both unwilling and unable to help her financially. Both eager to “make something” together, Piv and Robin hatch a jewelry import scheme. But to get it off the ground, they must turn to a friend of Piv’s who runs an import/export concern of his own: illegal animal smuggling. Piv and Robin reluctantly agree to participate, only to see their involvement spiral from picking up an envelope in Malaysia, to roaring down an airport highway with a box of endangered turtles in the backseat, to Piv tying live snakes, wrapped in pantyhose, around his ankles. The cast of characters expands to involve more sinister traffickers and the investigators on their trail.

Chicago writer Zoe Zolbrod’s debut novel is a rare animal itself, a literary novel with an honest-to-god plot: animal smuggling! Evil international traffickers! But the plot, intriguing as it is, stays manageable and not as broadly thriller-like as the description suggests. The plot is a pleasure, absolutely, but even more so are the atmospheric Southeast Asian locations, evoked by Zolbrod with skill and a deeply observant eye from both Piv’s and Robin’s perspectives, as the novel unfolds in alternating sections. Also rewarding is the thoughtful engagement Zolbrod brings to the whole idea of travel, of people trying (and failing) to transform their lives. Every place Robin goes is a chance to imagine an alternate existence, to try on other lives like outfits. But every place is also then a risk to her fantasies, like the discomfort of a trip to Piv’s childhood home. Piv’s ultimate goal is to leave Thailand altogether, to travel to the United States, a prospect he can’t pursue without Robin’s help; Robin, meanwhile, is desperate to stay in Thailand, both fleeing her old life, but also hoping to find the “better, deeper, richer things” she’s sure await her.

This cross-purposes confusion is typical of Robin and Piv’s relationship; as lovers, they spend much of the book slightly befuddled, suspicious of the other’s motives and true desires. As a love story, then, Currency can be frustrating. But the frustration is appropriate; if the reader isn’t always sure what’s binding Piv and Robin together, well, neither are they. Their relationship is new, and under the pressure of their illegal activities, cracks quickly show. At one point, Robin snoops through Piv’s backpack, only to realize she won’t be able to read anything she finds—the problem is not only how well they know each other, but how well, as foreigners, they can even hope to. As Piv thinks about Robin, “How many times have I looked at her? Maybe one thousand times. Maybe ten thousand times. … Many Thai people marry farangs. They can be happy, if they pick the right one, if they try to know the other culture, sure. But most important to be happy is to know the other person. To look ten million times.” Piv’s distinctive English was a major risk for Zolbrod and one of the great triumphs of the book.

Currency is the inaugural title from the Morgan Street International Novel Series, part of Other Voices Books, an independent Chicago press (itself an imprint of Michigan-based Dzanc Books). The series has the worthy aims not only of “explor[ing] issues of race, identity, and political affairs through the lens of human relationships,” but of doing so via “vibrant, compulsively readable storytelling.” Zolbrod’s Currency is a stand-out on both counts: a thoughtful meditation on travel and foreignness, and an engaging novel with an absorbing plot and plenty of suspense.

Editor's note: For a video trailer about the novel,  click here.

Caitlin Horrocks’ debut short story collection, This Is Not Your City, is forthcoming from Sarabande Books. Stories from the collection appear in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, The Pushcart Prize 2011, The Paris Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

© Caitlin Horrocks, 2011