The Ballad of a Small Player

A Novel
Trade Paperback

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A riveting tale of risk and obsession set in the alluring world of Macau’s casinos, by the author of the critically acclaimed The Forgiven.
As night falls on Macau and the neon signs that line the rain-slick streets come alive, Doyle – “Lord Doyle” to his fellow players – descends into his casino of choice to try his luck at the baccarat tables that are the anchor of his current existence. A corrupt English lawyer who has escaped prosecution by fleeing to the East, Doyle spends his nights drinking and gambling and his days sleeping off his excesses, continually haunted by his past. Taking refuge in a series of louche and dimly lit hotels, he watches his fortune rise and fall as the cards decide his fate.

In a moment of crisis he meets Dao-Ming, an enigmatic Chinese woman who appears to be a denizen of the casinos just like himself, and seems to offer him salvation in the form of both money and love. But as Doyle attempts to make a rare and true connection, all that he accepts as reality seems to be slipping from his grasp.

Resonant of classics by Dostoevsky and Graham Greene, The Ballad of a Small Player is a timeless tale steeped in eerie suspense and rich atmosphere.

From the Hardcover edition.


  • Named as one the 100 Notable Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review 
  • Selected by NPR as one of the Best Books of 2014, including Staff Picks 
  • Chosen by Neel Mukherjee for The New Statesmen's Best Books of 2014 
  • Best Reads of 2014 in The New Yorker
  • Kansas City Star 100 Best Books of 2014

"With its ex-pat angst and debauched air of moral ambiguity set amid the sinister demi-monde of the Far East's corrupt gambling dens, Osborne's darkly introspective study of decline and decay conjures apt comparisons to Paul Bowles, Graham Greene, and V. S. Naipaul." — Booklist

"The Ballad of a Small Player is a short novel, but in its small space it manages to be even more atmospherically gripping and morally hazy than The Forgiven. Where that novel was driven by the excitement of a moral thriller, The Ballad of a Small Player evokes, very differently, the spectral, tenebrous mood of John Fowles' The Magus or Arthur Schniztler's Dream Story. The most exciting thing about this slippery, deceptive novel that is, right up until its last page, you are left deliciously uncertain as to exactly what kind of story you are reading... The writing is both sensuous and finely tuned...(a) darkly fascinating work of fiction." — The London Sunday Times

"Damn. Another writer I have to care about. After a certain age, it’s as irksome to add to the list of writers one reads as it is to add to one’s circle of friends. For most of his career, Lawrence Osborne gave the impression of being someone I could safely ignore. He wrote a novel in his youth that went the way of most first novels before carving out a career as a travel writer and wine connoisseur, but then in his 50s something jolted him into writing another novel, The Forgiven, about Westerners partying on the edge of the North African desert, which turned out to be dark, brilliant and about as ­ignorable as a ­switchblade. Now he’s written a third novel, and on every other page there’s an image that catches the eye or sticks in the mind: 'She handled them in the way that a buyer in a market will handle small fish before buying them.' That’s a woman betting on a hand of baccarat. What’s great about those fish, apart from the way their size makes them so easy to flip, is the fear that they may go bad, just like a hand of cards. And how quickly they turn, too. You see? How can you hang on to your indifference in the face of a simile like that?..." The Ballad of a Small Player forgoes Osborne’s gifts of social satire but retains his sense of dread and gift for gimlet-eyed metaphor: that old crone’s face “like an overripe peach, furred and uneven”; a gambler on his way to the table 'like a raccoon on its way to a Dumpster'; a casino interior like 'some Hans Christian Andersen fairy palace imagined by a small child with a high fever.' That’s not a bad description of the book itself, a vivid and feverish portrait of a soul in self-inflicted purgatorio." — Tom Shone, The New York Times Book Review

“A perfectly written existential thriller, a spooky, gripping, heart-in-your-mouth read that has profound things to say about the only god who rules human affairs – chance." — Neel Mukherjee, The New Statesman

"I’m going to just go right on and out and say it — Osborne’s novel is the best on contemporary China since Malraux’s Man’s Fate." — Paul French, the Los Angeles Book Review

"Osborne captures the unreality of Macau, a city of glass and light, but the book is less about place than it is about the consciousness of the narrator in that place. His previous novel, The Forgiven, about a British couple who hit a young man with their car while travelling to a lavish party in the Moroccan desert, had the sinister grace of Paul Bowles. This time, Osborne has been compared to Graham Greene, but the novel also owes much to the American novelist James Salter, to whom Osborne pays tribute by referring to gambling, and life, as a 'sport and a pastime.' Like Salter, Osborne writes with weighty, aphoristic sentences — and is interested in superstition, and fate, and all things that are just beyond our control." — Ian Crouch, The New Yorker

"A searing portrait of addiction and despair set in the glittering world of Macau's casinos.... the novel's energetic portrait of the highs and lows of a gambler's fortunes are as good as anything in the literature of addiction. Osborne's intriguing Chinese milieu and exquisite prose mark this work as a standout." — Publisher's Weekly, starred review

"Osborne renders the atmosphere of casinos, hotels and restaurants seductively...he shows an impeccable facility for capturing the sweat-soaked suspense of the high-stakes card table." — The New Yorker

"The beauty of this novel is in the elegance and precision of its prose, which renders the glaring kitsch of Macau into a series of exquisite miniatures, and draws on Osborne's reserves as a travel writer." — The Guardian

"Osborne masterfully recreates the atmosphere of casinos as well as the psychology of baccarat players—and leaves readers eager to try their luck at the game." — Kirkus Reviews

“Osborne’s The Forgiven, an Economist Best Book of the Year (and one of my personal Bests from last year, too), is as brilliant, unsentimental a rendering of contemporary East-West conflict and the imperfect human psyche as you are likely to find. His new work proceeds in that tradition…Don’t miss.” — Library Journal

"Osborne's exceptional 2013 novel, The Forgiven, portrayed a group of decadent Westerners partying in the Moroccan desert, to the distaste of the locals. The Ballad of a Small Player is similarly fascinated by clashing cultures. But where The Forgiven drew comparisons with Paul Bowles and Evelyn Waugh, it is to Graham Greene that his new book owes most debts.The Ballad of a Small Player shares the exoticism and East-West disconnect of The Quiet American, the unresolved supernaturalism of The Heart of the Matter and Loser Takes All's bittersweet relationship with the gaming tables. If Osborne's book is a love letter to gambling, it's the kind written at 3am to an indifferent ex after an evening at the bar - an ode to self-destruction. 'Everyone knows you are not a real player unless you secretly prefer losing,' Doyle observes. In fact, a desire to lose turns out to be the least of Doyle's secrets. Osborne's 'fraud lord' is a triumph of self-invention, as fabulously ersatz as the fake Gainsboroughs lining the casino walls. The provincial solicitor, son of a vacuum-cleaner salesman, has become the Krug-drinking high-roller in trademark yellow kid gloves. Disguise is necessary after embezzling the life savings of an elderly widow. The nature of the transformation and of the crime, however, suggests acts of psychic revenge upon an England of low horizons, warm beer and provincial snobbery. As charismatic a narrator as he is unreliable, Doyle deftly courts the reader's sympathy: he is a player in more than one sense...Osborne's novel is a brisk, electrifying read, as elegant in negotiating the rackety world it depicts as its bow-tied narrator. It offers a love story of sorts, an account of addiction, a black comedy of (largely bad) manners and a fly-on-the-roulette-wheel portrait of Macau's fantastically kitsch casinos. The most ambiguous, and therefore the most enjoyable, kind of ghost story, the book clutches its central enigmas hard to itself. A second reading reveals quite how cannily Lawrence Osborne has set rational and supernatural interpretations against each other, as he turns the screw on his readers. Even then, The Ballad of a Small Player remains elusive, and is all the better for that." — Adrian Turpin, The Literary Review

"Lawrence Osborne has invented an original and intriguing character in the other-worldly Dao-Ming. She is a master blend of contradictions as she simultaneously offers up her physical self and slams down tight the grille barring her authentic ego. Lord Doyle, on the other hand, is not unique; no, he is all too common. Doyle is a sad case, pitiable, even tragic, and sometimes deranged, but he is never laughable. This is one of the myriad instances in which this author proves his skill: I cared about Doyle, even in his most abased moments when his addiction has him on the mat; even as he finally went about strategically, deliberately ruining himself. He believes that in his ruination what he truly needs will come back to him. Lawrence Osborne is not just a master at creating complicated human beings, he also excels at immersing you in his environment. Osborne paints Macau and Hong Kong alive with his prose. You can hear the strident mobs in the pits; taste the oolong tea; see the garish pseudo-Roman circus décor of the casinos; smell the stench of the ubiquitous clouds of cheap cigarette smoke; feel the rain soaking your hair as you take the ferry to Hong Kong – it is monsoon season in the South China Sea. But here in the land of the I Ching there is also a sixth sense." — Michelle Newby, Texas Book Lover

"The Ballad of a Small Player is one of the best, and quite possibly the best, East Asian “expat novel” of the past decade. I realize with concern that this may come across as damning with faint praise. The often pejorative “expat fiction”—applied to novels written by, in the main, white visitors to Asia—needn’t necessarily be a term of disdain, for the genre includes such writers as Somerset Maugham, Shirley Hazzard, Graham Greene, Paul Theroux and J.G. Ballard. There is no reason why Hong Kong and its sister city of Macau should not make for as great English-language fiction as such other foreign locales as Berlin or Paris, but despite—or perhaps because of—the Asian cities’ obvious attractions, lightning of the literary kind rarely seems to strike. The results are usually dreary and formulaic processions of bar girls, fast money, deadbeat caucasian males, drugs and crooks. These elements form the basis of The Ballad of a Small Player too, but Osborne—against the odds, one has to say—pulls off a virtuoso performance that isn’t, in the end, about any of those things. What sets the novel apart is not so much the plotting or characterization, but the writing: the elegant prose, the changes of pace, the crisp dialogue and the descriptions that transport the reader into the scene. Those who don’t live in East Asia might read The Ballad of a Small Player for the exoticism of its locales and the descriptions of the extravagant seediness of the Macau casinos. Those who live here know all this, of course. Some will read it voyeuristically no doubt, but others will be transfixed by the way Osborne has turned our corner of the world, and all those things that make it what it is, from humidity to egg tarts and gaudy statues in casino lobbies, into a story that reaches well beyond it.Any 'old China hand' thinking of turning his (or these days, her) hand to semi-autobiographical fiction would do well to read this first.Anyone else would do well to read it too." — Peter Gordon, the Asian Review of Books, Hong Kong

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