Author: Mischa Berlinski
Genre: Contemporary fiction, literary fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
First line: When he was a year out of Brown, my friend Josh O’Connor won a Thai beach vacation in a lottery in a bar.
Mischa Berlinski is a journalist; Fieldwork is his first novel. That fact makes its beautiful prose and engrossing story all the more amazing.
Fieldwork is the story of (fictional) journalist Mischa, living in Thailand while his fiance teaches English to first graders. He is making a small living writing restaurant reviews and summaries of business textbooks, when he hears the story of anthropologist Martiya van der Leun. Martiya has committed suicide in a Thai prison, where she was serving a life sentence for murder.
Mischa becomes intrigued by Martiya’s story, and starts digging. His curiosity turns to obsession when he learns that the victim of Martiya’s murder was the son of a prominent missionary family. Mischa meets the Walker family, second and third generation evangelical missionaries living in Thailand and ministering to the Dyalo tribal people. He is fascinated by the story of these hardy people who have chosen to forsake all Western comforts and live in harsh conditions for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. He also delves into the world of anthropologists, who immerse themselves in tribal cultures for a completely different reason. The two worlds are similar, but by definition must be opposed to each other. The anthropologist’s task is to catalog and preserve tribal culture; the missionary’s goal is to convert the tribal people.
Martiya makes the acquaintance of the Walker family, and they help her by answering her questions, translating Dyalo phrases, and explaining Dyalo customs to her. So what happened to make Martiya decide to kill David, the Walkers’ son? Mischa peels back the layers of the mystery, and as he does, the story gets more and more enthralling. I couldn’t put it down until I knew why Martiya did what she did.
Berlinski is an extremely talented writer; his descriptions of the Thai culture and countryside are breathtaking. Part of me was waiting for the portrayal of the Walker missionary family to descend into derisive stereotype, but Berlinski gives all of his characters a humanity and authenticity that make them seem like living, breathing people. They are flawed, fascinating humans that are, above all, real. The climax of the story shows how one simple choice can bring about the most unexpected and horrific consequences.
This is a re-post of a review I wrote a couple of years ago.