Sunday, January 24, 2010

*Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski

my edition
In an afterword to this novel, the author notes that at first he was going to write a nonfiction book about Christian missionary work among a Thai native tribe, but then changed his mind. I'm so glad he did.

I bought Fieldwork nearly two years ago and just got around to reading it. My first thought after reading it was "this was only a finalist for the National Book Award? Jeez...I have to go look up what won that year and read it" because this book was so good. So off to the internet I went, looked up that year's winner, and discovered that the winning book was Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, which was one of my favorite books for 2008.  It is one of those rare novels that comes along in which the quality of writing is simply exquisite.  The story is good, well plotted and holds throughout the novel,  and the thread of continuity never gets lost among the details.  It's also obvious that the author did a great deal of research. His characterizations are vividly real and the story is utterly believable. In fact, I had to keep reminding myself that this book was fiction.

Expat American, young journalist  Mischa Berlinski (yes, he uses his own name for the main character here), has come to Thailand with his  girlfriend, a schoolteacher. A local character, another expat, comes to Mischa with a story about a woman named Martiya van der Leun, who came to Thailand some years back to study a hill tribe known as the Dyalo for her PhD work in Anthropology. It turns out that Martiya had been sentenced to fifty years in Chiang Mai prison for the murder of a Christian missionary, but Martiya had committed suicide while serving her term.   Berlinski wants to know how this woman went from such a promising life and career to rotting in a Thai prison, and sets out to get her story.  In the course of his own research, he delves into the lives of the missionaries, the Dyalo, Martiya's family, her friends & lovers, and her co-workers to try to understand what really happened.

The book has been criticized by readers for many reasons -- the biggest one being that there's too much detail about the missionaries or about the Dyalo, and that the story gets bogged down, but I have to disagree. Just as Martiya felt she had to know things from the natives' point of view to really understand these people, the reader in this case won't really get the whole story  without understanding the various factors that led up to the fateful moment that put Martiya behind the walls of Chiang Mai prison.

I loved this book and I would recommend it to anyone who wants an extremely well-written and highly intelligent novel. Books like this one are rare, so you should grab the opportunity.

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