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  • Writer's pictureJenny Waldo


The Ballad of a Small Player is vivid in the way a dream is when you first wake up, before it disappears from consciousness. A novel about the thrill of losing, and the impenetrable wall between opposites that sometimes vanishes in an instant of luck. RATING: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

The Ballad of a Small Player is heavy on atmosphere. Locations are richly detailed, but the story is difficult to find through the haze of smoke. At the end of the first paragraph, we know all we really need to know about Doyle and the book. The characters, the mood, the pacing, the words used, the rhythm of those words…it’s all here:

I go there [the Greek Mythology in Taipa] to scatter my yuan, my dollars, my kwai, and losing there is easier than winning, more gratifying. It’s more like winning than winning itself, and everyone knows you are not a real player until you secretly prefer losing.

I can’t say I liked this novel overall, but phrases like the one above felt inspired and exciting. Every single sentence was an attempt to say something profound about the opposing forces that sit side by side in our hearts and minds. The author was a gambler himself. Sometimes, the risks didn’t work and the phrases were cumbersome and overly written. But many times, the beautiful and lyrical combinations of words tickled the imagination. A delicate and thoughtful bow laced with contradictions: What it is to have all the money in the world and then have none of it only to find it again and lose it all. What it is to truly be alive, which seems more like chasing death without ever having the strength to commit suicide, only to realize you are a ghost among the living. The differences between luck and skill, superstition and statistics, men and women, the city and the country, the native and the foreign, the respected and the despised. Themes of social strata and the isolation of being “the other” beginning in England and following the main character to Macau; his only method of dealing with his discomfort and frustration is to risk everything, even his life, for money.

But it’s not money he truly wants. It’s the risk itself. Money, in many ways, sullies everything. It sullies the potential he has with a woman he meets in a bar who he pays to stay the night with him. There will never be a moment where they are just a man and just a woman who share an understanding. They will always, in some way, be client and server.

The plot overall does not have much weight. Every plot point or potential for plot to develop was just a tease, another swirl of smoke, another idea. The impact of the book came from the writing itself, when it was successful, because I felt Lord Doyle’s angst. Unfortunately, the heaviness of every sentence risking everything for this kind of impact was exhausting to read and at the end, I was left with little more than that feeling.

Summary: [SPOILERS AHEAD] We know that “Lord Doyle” is on the run from Scotland Yard after stealing an elderly woman’s fortune and hiding out in Hong Kong to gamble it into a retirement fund. We know that his funds are getting low, yet he doesn’t seem to be capable of stopping when he’s ahead, or of stopping, period. But then he ends up with a miracle string at various casinos where he wins hand after hand, amassing a fortune. He begins to be more conservative with his playing (which I had a hard time believing). He doesn’t fight the ban one casino puts on him. He begins to believe more in the superstition rampant in the culture he’s living in, trying to test his newfound luck until, thankfully, his streak is broken. And then he loses everything.

The prostitute he met coincidentally appears at this moment and offers to help him recuperate in her country home. After days of smoking heroin, making love, and talking, she then leaves him with a large sum of money – her entire savings – and disappears. The locals in the village tell Doyle that he’s been alone this entire time. And there doesn’t seem to be traces that this girl actually existed. But nevertheless, he takes the money and returns to the city to gamble it all into another fortune, which he does, and then – just one more – he promptly loses it again.

Lord Doyle begins and ends in virtually the same place psychologically. Emotionally, he’s a bit more withdrawn and physically, he’s destitute, but the emphasis is always on his mind – how he thinks and what he feels not on a physical level but on an intellectual level. Combined with the ephemeral plot, the novel didn’t add up for me.


Lawrence Osborne is the author of one previous novel, Ania Malina, and six books of nonfiction, including the memoir Bangkok Days. His journalism and short stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Newsweek, Forbes, Tin House, Harper’s, Conde Nast Traveler, and many other publications. Osborne has led a nomadic life, residing for years in France, Italy, Morocco, the United States, Mexico, and Thailand. He currently lives in Istanbul.

Learn more about this book and author.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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