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18th December
written by Steph

This is a book I had heard snippets of good things about in the big old book blog world.  I was sufficiently intrigued by the good press it had received that when I saw a cheap copy at the local used book store, I decided to give it a whirl. That being said, I wasn’t entirely sure just what exactly Fieldwork was going to be about exactly.  I had garnered from the back cover that it was about a man who moves to Thailand with his girlfriend, and that it would involve the jungle, anthropologists, missionaries, murder, and was supposed to be Spooky.  Ultimately, I suppose all of these things are true, although I didn’t find anything all that creepy about the book, and I’m not sure that I would really call it a “thriller” either.  Like The Basic Eight, which I read earlier this year, this is another one of those so-called “mysteries” where you know within the first 30 pages who has done the crime (& the time!), and the aim of the rest of the novel is to piece together the back story.  It’s not so much a whodunit? as it is a whydunit?.  Stephen King wrote a piece in Entertainment Weekly about how he thought the book had been given a really boring cover that belied the book’s true awesomeness.  I didn’t have a problem with the cover, but I would be ok if someone thought the cover of Fieldwork was boring and consequently concluded that it was boring, because sometimes it really was! Fieldwork tells the story of Mischa Berlinski (yes, he’s the narrator of his own fictional tale) who winds up researching an American anthropologist named Martiya van der Leun, who went to Thailand to study the Dyalo for her dissertation.  The back of the book makes it seem as though her suicide at the beginning of the novel is a big thing, but the only purpose that serves is so that Berlinski has to go digging into her past and interview various sources to get the whole story rather than just speaking to her directly about why she killed a young Christian missionary.  The book is divided into  five parts, each one focusing on a different aspect of the murder case, ranging from Martiya’s youth (as told to Berlinski by her aunt), to the history of the Walker family who lost their son at Martiya’s hand, to the Dyalo themselves.  Berlinski is a fine writer, but I felt that the division of the novel into parts made things feel quite choppy and certain portions were more interesting than others (the Walker history felt very much like a tangent, and although I can appreciate why he might have wanted to flesh out those characters, it was a bit long and tedious).  While I do think that he does wind up telling a very complete tale, at just under 350 pages, Fieldwork felt overly long.  For a relatively short novel, I was surprised it took me a full week to read, which I believe is due to certain parts dragging and being not all that engaging. Fieldwork is certainly a very rich and thorough novel.  Although I didn’t feel as though it really captured my interest (or never held it fully when it did), I do think Berlinski really puts you into the mindset of his characters (which is one of the issues anthropologists throughout the novel struggle with).  I think it is worth noting that although the characters and the story are completely fictitious, he writes with sufficient detail and authority that I really did feel a lot of the time as though I was reading a true story.   It might have been nice if he had done a more conventional narrative rather than constructing things in terms of himself doing the reporting, but I think this does lead to some interesting parallels between himself and his subjects, so in retrospect, I forgive some of the jerkier elements of the story.  I also felt I got a really wonderful sense of Thailand, and you can see Berlinski drawing on his own real-life experience to transform his depictions of the muggy climate and savory food into as near an acute sensory experience as a book can provide. Overall then, the writing was good and the story was fine too (it definitely becomes more nuanced and intricate at the end), but somehow I felt the whole thing was somewhat underwhelming and was just never hooked by it all.  Maybe I was expecting more overt action, given the book’s categorization as a mystery/thriller.  If you go in understanding that for all the death and talks of spirits/possession, this is really a very quiet novel, you might be in a better mindset to appreciate it.  I think he provides a clever perspective on the field of anthropology in various ways, and I could see several elements of the missionary element to the story being intriguing to someone who is interested in religion.  In the end then, this wasn’t really the book for me, but it very well might be one for you. Rating: 3 out of 5


  1. 12/18/2008

    I’ve read the book as well. It wasn’t really for me either. Not a bad book, but not at all the type of book I enjoy reading.


  2. 02/21/2009

    i’ve never heard of this book before you mentioned it. i don’t think i’m interested either, especially since you thought it tedious in parts. thanks for the review, very helpful. 🙂

  3. […] which is perhaps less than ideal, but beggars can’t be choosers, after all. A few years ago I read Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski, which took me into the wilds of Thai hillside tribes. Recently on a whim, I picked up Alex […]

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