I had never heard of Mischa Berlinski or this book until it arrived in the mail one day. A very welcome surprise from Toad’s Mom. Finding a book in your mailbox that you didn’t know was coming and have never heard of is a very good thing indeed. Finding this particular book was even better than that.
Fieldwork is Berlinksi’s first novel, published in 2007, and a finalist for the National Book Award. Not bad for a writer right out of the gate. As the title suggests, this novel is set within the world of academic sociology. The story is told by an American journalist living in northern Thailand with his girlfriend. In the conversation that opens the novel, he hears the story of a promising American sociologist who came to Thailand to do fieldwork for a number of years with a tribe called the Dyalo. By the time her story is being told to the narrator, she is dead after taking her own life in a Thai prison where she is sent after killing a man. The man is the prodigal son of an American missionary family.
Although the reader never hears her voice, Martiya van der Luen is the focus of the novel. The narrator becomes obsessed with trying to understand and investigate her story. This search leads him from the ivory towers of the American university system to the tribal world and traditions of the Dyalo hill people to the expat missionaries who live among the Dyalo in the hopes of helping them find their way towards God. The author creates each of these worlds with enormous heart and the obsessive nature of his quest lends a fast-paced, suspense feel to the story line. The book raises many interesting questions about the nature of cultural immersion and the reality of “going native”, the commitment and motivation of Christian missionaries, and the meaning of a spiritual life. While these are the kinds of questions that are right up my alley, they aren’t what I enjoyed most about the book. I loved the world that Berlinksi created. Actually the worlds, plural. When he let the various characters speak, their voices felt true. Although much of the story was built from internal narrative, he used dialogue smoothly and well.
I am hoping that Mischa Berlinksi writes another book soon. I would love to find it in my mailbox. If you want to know more, here’s the books’ website.