The atmospheric setting of Lawrence Osborne’s novel The Ballad of a Small Player threatens to overwhelm this small novel, but it also sets the tone for this ghostly tale. The baccarat tables of Macau, in an unspecified time period, are the backdrop to this tale of a corrupt English lawyer, who has fled here after embezzling money from an elderly English woman. Known only as Lord Doyle amongst the casinos in Macau, he plays the table wearing yellow gloves, and loses and gains money steadily with aplomb. After all, “everyone knows you’re not a real player until you secretly prefer losing,” according to Doyle. On the first night we meet him, he loses a few hands and then ends up back in a hotel room with a call girl named Dao-Ming. By morning she’s gone. In a moment of foreshadowing, Osborne writes “although the city is a reef where the confused fish never meet twice unless a goddess intervenes, intervene she does sometimes.”
There is an explanation of baccarat, which might help the reader understand the game, but it’s one of those things you only understand unless you try playing, I think. Because there is almost no skill involved–it’s all luck after all–and it tends to be high stakes, the game can get player’s adrenaline rushing. But playing with a cool head will increase your odds, especially if you pit yourself against Luck and not the other players, according to Doyle. When he loses badly to a woman the casino workers call Grandma, the wife of a wealthy property developer, he can’t afford to pay for his hotel and flees, contemplating ending it all by jumping off a boat. His apathy doesn’t even allow him to this choice. At a breakfast buffet that he has no money to pay for, Doyle is recused by the appearance of Dao-Ming, who pays for his meal and bring him home to recuperate. They fall into a pattern of eating and lovemaking until one day he wakes up and she’s gone. There’s a box of money however that he uses to return to the mainland.
From here, the story becomes even more dream-like and supernatural. Will Doyle’s addiction get the better of him? I found the book electrifying and ambiguous. The book finishes without answers exactly, perhaps mimicking what I imagine it’s like to play a baccarat game. This slim novel packs a wonderful jolt.