22 June 2010

Fieldwork (Mischa Berlinski)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa.

This is a story about a story.

If you’re used to the way I write my reviews, and you don’t mind that everything is more or less about me, read on.

If you’re new to this blog and want ‘a real book review’, maybe fish around in the archive?

Anyway, approximately six months ago, Penguin sent me a box of review books that included, among others, Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork. I read the back; it sounded great. So I took it with me on holiday. The sad part is that I never got to it. It looked wonderful, but there were so many other wonderfuls in December! Like...

  • Chic Jozi (Nikki Temkin)
  • The Well and the Mine (Gin Phillips)
  • Free Food for Millionaires (Min Jin Lee)
  • Bright Shiny Morning (James Frey)
  • Ways of Staying (Kevin Bloom)

So, I left Fieldwork at the beach house for my in-laws or their guests to enjoy on a future holiday (there’s a burgeoning library there, next to the fireplace, largely thanks to Penguin and, I suppose, me) – and duly forgot all about it.

Until this trip.

There it was. Waiting for me. Not on the shelf where I’d left it, but in full view. Not inside. On top. I vaguely recalled the original appeal and picked it up for a cursory flick-through. Three days later, I put it down again; thrilled with myself.

Whadda book!

Here’s a hint:

“This novel began not as fiction but as a history of the conversion of the Lisu people of northern Thailand to Christianity. Then one afternoon, I woke up from a long nap with a plot in my head, and my history became a novel. At that moment, I abandoned any intention I had to tell a true story. The Dyalo do not exist, except in these pages. None of this stuff happened to anyone.”

– Author’s Note

How fantastic?

I’ve kind of ruined things for you, though, because I didn’t have this compelling context until the very last page (literally) of the book. So all the while I wondered about Mischa, who writes in the first person, as himself, and that was delicious, to say the least. But the fact is that this book – even if you don’t like anthropology, ethnography, religion, research or fieldwork (and I really, really don’t) – is completely and utterly brilliant.

More information:

This sort-of-thriller is about Mischa Berlinski, a reporter who's moved to northern Thailand to be with his schoolteacher girlfriend. He hears from a friend about the suicide of Martiya van der Leun, an American anthropologist, in the Thai jail where she was serving 50 years for murder. Fascinated, Mischa begins to investigate Martiya's life and supposed crimes and in doing so, uses readable and clever backstory to explore the enduring conflict between faith and science.

The problem is that the plot doesn’t do the book much justice. Read it. It’s lekker.


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