A Book Review - "Fieldwork" by Mischa Berlinski
For the past few years, I have organized the used book sale at our annual faculty association scholarship fundraiser. One of the perks of organizing that sale is that I always find several books that look interesting, and they usually end up on my “to read” pile. One of those novels was Mischa Berlinski’s novel Fieldwork. A National Book Award finalist, this novel was praised by Stephen King in The New York Times as “a remarkable novel.” Fieldwork is the story of a journalist who goes to work in Thailand and ends up investigating the story of a murdered missionary by an anthropologist. The story unfolds to reveal many interesting layers and will keep you reading until the wee hours, as it is hard to put down.
Mischa Berlinski, a journalist, goes to Thailand to live and work when his girlfriend takes on a teaching job there. He hears the story of an American anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun, who was imprisoned for murdering a religious missionary. Martiya committed suicide in that Thai prison, leaving many questions unanswered. As the novel progresses, Berlinski tells the story of Martiya’s journey in Thailand as an anthropologist studying the fictitious Dyalo people. He weaves in the story of the Walker family, a colorful group of religious missionaries and family of the murdered David Walker. As the story progresses, the pieces of the mystery are revealed to explain how passions can collide and end in tragedy.
Much of the novel focuses on the story of Martiya, an American anthropologist studying the Dyalo people. Readers know from the start that she has murdered the missionary David Walker and that she has committed suicide in a Thai prison. As the pages are turned, the reader learns of her work and how she came to spend so many years with the Dyalo. Martiya is a captivating woman who is passionate about her work. Nothing about her character explains how she became a murderer, which led me to ask many questions as I read. Why did she murder David Walker? Were they lovers or enemies? Did they even know each other? Did she really do it? My questions changed as I kept reading, and I began to feel for this character who had presumably committed such a heinous crime.
Like so many great story tellers, Berlinski weaves many layers into this novel. In addition to Martiya’s story, the reader learns about the Walker family. The characters that make up this family of missionaries are extremely well written and developed. The reader gets a glimpse into the inner workings of this family that is so passionate about their beliefs that they have spent generations in Asia working to convert the Dyalo people to Christianity. The members of this family are sometimes delightful and quirky and display complex relationships that they don’t wish to reveal to outsiders like the narrator. As the story progressed, I began to wonder if the family members really believed what they preached or if they had just been preaching for so long that they were entrenched. I wondered how the death of David Walker affected their faith and their commitment to their work. I wondered if they knew Martiya and what her relationship with the family was. They never wished to discuss Martiya or David, and it made me question their honesty and if they were complicit in the murder.
Overall, Berlinski does a brilliant job of creating deep, interesting characters that draw in the reader. I wondered and speculated with each turn of the page. In the end, I was satisfied with an ending that was not predictable.
A prevalent theme in the novel deals with the clash between science and religion. Martiya represents the scientific side. She observes and notes the details of the Dyalo culture. The Walker family represents the religious side. They believe they have an essential mission to bring the word of God to this group of indigenous people. For much of the novel, the two story lines exist separate from one another, leaving the reader to wonder when and how they will finally clash. There is an exploration of the spirituality of the Dyalo people and how it guides their lives. Berlinski shows how the conversion to Christianity affects these characters, further developing his main theme.
Truth or Tale?
Mischa Berlinski does an amazing job of creating a piece of realistic fiction with this novel. On the biography page at the front of the book, it shows that he has indeed spent time in Thailand. He names the narrator after himself, sometimes making the reader consider whether the work is real or just a fictitious story. He creates the Dyalo people, an indigenous people who are studied by anthropologist Martiya van der Leun. The author’s extensive research shows in the details of the Thai landscape and the rituals of the tribe. He gives the reader a glimpse into what life would be like out in the field for an anthropologist. He unveils the inner workings of a multi-generational missionary family who are passionate about their beliefs. As a reader, I had moments where I wanted to believe that these characters were real, but in the end the author reminds the reader that “the Dyalo do not exist, except in these pages. None of this stuff happened to anyone.”
Have you read Fieldwork?
For a reader who loves Shakespeare and Maya Angelou, Fieldwork seemed to be a departure from my normal reading habits. I picked it up because it looked interesting and different. I was drawn in by the mystery behind the concept of a scientist murdering a missionary. I was hooked by the author’s skillful writing and layered story lines. I enjoyed the read to the very last page because the characters were believable, deep, passionate and human. If you are looking for a novel that tells a unique, gripping story, pick up Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. I wholeheartedly recommend it, and I know you will not be disappointed.
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© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt