I’m a sucker for first novels and for novels set in exotic locations. So when I noticed a few people on the book forums talking about Fieldwork, my interest was immediately and irrevocably piqued. What’s not to like about a first novel involving anthropologists, missionaries, demon possession, sexual taboo, and murder, that is also set in deepest, darkest, steamiest Thailand (near the Burma border).*
Mischa’s girlfriend has accepted a job teaching English in Thailand, and our protagonist has followed her there. He spends his days writing men’s fashion and movie reviews for a Thai English-language weekly. One night over dinner, a fellow expat tells Mischa a story about another American expat found dead in prison, an apparent suicide. Compelled by the unforgettable tale, and with nothing taxing his time, Mischa is soon engaged in investigative journalism.
His hope is to learn more about the circumstances under which Martiya van der Leun, an academic anthropologist, came to be imprisoned and dead. Martiya arrived in remote Thailand, straight from Berkeley, to do fieldwork—literally the time anthropologists spend in the field, observing Native groups and gathering research around which the anthropologist may build a career.
By conducting interviews with Martiya’s friends, family, and lovers, Mischa learns more about her life in academia and among the fictitious Dyalo tribe along the Thai-Burmese border. He uncovers more about this isolated tribe, as well as their rice planting ritual, their superstitions, and their sexual taboos. He also spends time with key members of the Walkers, a big missionary family that has been saving souls in Thailand for four generations. It is the Walkers’ prodigal son, David, whom Martiya has killed.
One book reviewer compared Fieldwork to other titles in the “backpacker lit” genre, a label I’ve not heard before now, though I like and understand it intellectually. An example of such is Alex Garland’s The Beach (which, since I’m a fan of time and place—when and where one reads books—I will note was the book I read while in labor with Son Number One) and Katy Gardner’s Losing Jemma, which appears to be out of print. Another reviewer called Fieldwork a “mystery novel with literary leanings” like John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. Perhaps.
I’d like to offer up a few comparisons of my own: John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 (for the steamy, exotic setting and a murder investigation) and Arthur Phillips’ Prague (for self-consciously hip expat fiction—though Berlinski is a much stronger writer or had a better editor, or both).
Ultimately, Berlinksi exceeds expectations as a first novelist with this intoxicating story.
* Well, here’s one thing—and it’s a pretty minor thing, but it bears mentioning: The protagonist shares the author’s name, Mischa Berlinski. But since the novel is told in first person, our protagonist is rarely referred to by name.