Thursday, November 22, 2007

Berlinski's Fieldwork is a wonder

Books now read in ’07: 109
Title: Fieldwork
Author: Mischa Berlinski
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 11-21
Pages: 314

, Mischa Berlinski’s first novel, a tale of murder among a remote Thai hill tribe, is a wonder. Berlinski provides the reader with a riveting narrative, justly earning the book its distinction as one of five titles short-listed for the National Book Award.

Fieldwork is told by Mischa Berlinski, an ex-pat American in Thailand who is squeaking by on unrewarding writing assignments – a description that seems to add telling detail to the author’s brief bio in the back of the book. Yes, it’s a conceit that could quickly collapse from its own cleverness, yet Fieldwork does not. That it doesn’t is a tribute to Berlinski’s skill as a storyteller and to his decision to focus on the story, not the narrator.

And the story is engrossing.

While having coffee with a friend, Berlinski learns about an American woman, Martiya van der Leun, in a Thai prison. An American anthropologist doing her field work among the primitive Dyalo hill tribe of Thailand, Martiya was imprisoned for the murder of an American missionary. Berlinski sets out to discover why.

And it is this story – the anthropologist’s immersion in Dyalo culture, the history of the extended missionary clan and their ultimate clash that makes for an absorbing and entirely satisfying novel.

The novel succeeds, in part, because of Berlinski’s treatment of the missionary clan. He resists any temptation to mock this family or to satirize them. Instead, he presents the missionaries – much as our anthropologist presents the Dyalo – from a balanced, objective viewpoint. As she attempts to understand the Dyalo, so does he try to understand them.

No one, even Martiya, is evil in this novel. What culminates in murder arises from a clash in culture. How we get there is a fascinating journey, skillfully told by this first-time novelist.

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