Review: Fieldwork

By David Herman, August 22, 2008

By Mischa Berlinski
Atlantic, £11.99

Mischa Berlinski's debut novel comes trailing rave reviews from the States.

The narrator, also called Mischa Berlinski, is a young Jewish-American journalist, who has followed his girlfriend to Thailand. She is working as a teacher; he is trying to make ends meet writing pieces for local newspapers.

One evening he has dinner with his friend, Josh O'Connor, who tells him about his extraordinary encounter with a strange woman, Martiya van der Leun, who is in prison for murder. Berlinski thinks there might be an article in her story. In no time, he is hooked and the rest of the book follows his search to understand what drove a brilliant young anthropologist to murder a Christian missionary in the remote hills of north Thailand.

Berlinski has a light touch. He moves easily between a murder mystery and some very interesting reflections on anthropology. You believe in his heroine's passion for understanding strange tribal customs. He peoples his novel with a rich cast of quirky characters - a strange family of American evangelical missionaries, academics, Chinese warlords, and rock fans - and he creates a vivid atmosphere. He has spent time in Thailand and does a good job of evoking the tastes, smells and landscape. It may sound like backpacker-lit, a smart version of Alex Garland's bestseller, The Beach, but it aspires to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, set in south-east Asia, with an innocent journalist as Marlowe and a beautiful young murderess as Kurtz.

The narrator is smart, sane and ironic, all virtues in a world full of crazy people. He's like Sam Spade if Chandler's detective had been to graduate school and read a shelf full of anthropology books. Above all, he's curious.

There are two problems. The first is that I've seen better twists in most good American TV shows. Secondly, it's not Conrad. Not even Conrad-lite. It is a clever, charming thriller, but perhaps its fans should go out and rent Black Narcissus.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011