Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski

It’s perhaps an appropriate irony that I found the novel, Fieldwork, at the same time as The Lying Tongue (which I recently reviewed). Like Lying Tongue, Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski, is a novel set in an exotic locale (Thailand, this time), the protagonist (eponymously named, this time) also in search of clues to the life of a mysterious person – this time an anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun – who has died mysteriously in a Thai prison for killing a Christian missionary.
Unlike the tawdriness of Lying Tongue, Fieldwork is a masterfully written work. It seems slow in developing by American fiction standards, because it’s told primarily in narrative, with little resort to dialogue and very little of the usual intense action. For a first-time novelist, Berlinski handles his prose very well, slowly drawing the reader into the suspense with both story and “fact” about a remote Thai tribe, the Dyalo. What makes this story ultimately compelling is the surrounding “facts” about the Thai countryside, the tribal people, the missionaries’ attempts at conversion, their concern over the very palpable sense of otherworldly beings, or spirits, associated with virtually every aspect of Dyalo life.
The unwinding story of Martiya has her living with the Dyalo people for two years, then returning to the U.S. to finish her doctorate, then unhappy with that life, returning to the Dyalo. On this trip, she slowly comes under the sway of certain spirits, who lead her astray. All this leaves the reader to ponder the power of both the Christian God and of the Dyalo spirits.
It’s become cliché to expect novels about people in faraway places, but this one is hard to imagine a writer conjuring. Berlinski is to be commended for his unique story, but I wonder what can possibly follow. Of course, I’ll be looking forward to whatever does come.

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