Rated of 5
by Betsey Van Horn
Flawed but brimming with an unforgettable character
I appreciated and enjoyed Berlinski's novel that infuses scholarly information on anthropology with a suspense story set in rural Thailand. It is written in a memoir form (although it is fiction). I did wonder why he used his real name rather than changing it. This distracted me at times--it made it difficult for me to separate the author from the narrator, which is important in any book that is not a memoir or autobiography. I do think it would have been helpful if he had changed his name. I think some problems stemmed from this. At times, the story seemed to digress into the self-consciousness of the narrator which brought me out of the story and into the author's consciousness.
The story is suspenseful and full of intelligent insights into human character. He takes us back to the beginnings of serious fieldwork in anthropology and shares the common threads of angst that exists between anthropologists--whether to immerse yourself into the lives of the people you are studying or whether to stay on the outside looking in. The main protagonist's (narrator) anti-heroine, the anthropologist who murdered a Catholic missionary, did immerse herself completely into the Thai culture of which she was studying and suffered (possibly) from a complete personality alteration.
I was enthralled with the author's description of the dyal, the rice ceremony indigenous to this rural culture. I do wish he had introduced it a lot earlier in order for the reader to ride its thematic importance. Instead, the author digressed quite a bit in the novel and then introduced the dyal ceremony and culture late enough for me to wonder if it was an artificial plot invention. I came to the conclusion that it seemed that way because of the first time novelist's editing problems (could have used a more aggressive editor). The dyal was central to the story but unfortunately appeared to be tacked on due to its awkward placement.
The main problem for me in reading the story was its structure/execution. It was a bit uneven, with a huge chunk afforded to the whole Walker family tree and their eccentric personalities. In the end, this had little meaning to the overall poignancy of the mystery. I do enjoy detailed descriptions of characters, but in this case it felt a little engineered as a red herring--or, perhaps the author wasn't quite sure how to balance the two cultures. It is also as if the author had not fully committed to writing either a book on social anthropology or a novel so decided to merge the two (without actually having a writer's firm control over it).
If this all sounds very negative, it is that I am slightly annoyed by these little inconsistencies that occasionally blocked my enjoyment of the story, i.e. the author writes with compassion and flare and really engaged me in this mystery, but often he got in the way of himself. By not separating Berlinski the author from Berlinski the narrator from Berlinski the protagonist, he was a distracting presence.
In spite of these problems, I was able to look past the unevenness of structure because I was so engaged in the character of Martiya. The author made her come alive for me, and I felt deeply concerned with her travails. She popped out of the pages and was so powerful a presence that I was able to overcome the stiltedness of Berlinski vs Berlsinski vs Berlinski. Her story moved me; she became legendary. Many days after I closed the pages of the book, she entered my thoughts. Martiya was original, striking, and haunting. I could almost smell her. The other characters in the story were well drawn, also, but not nearly as captivating as Martiya. Her presence and vividness is what raises a two or three star rating to a four star rating. Berlinski is forgiven his first time author flaws because he created a first rate character in Martiya.
I do recommend this book--it is rich with humanity. Martiya is a character worth knowing, the descriptions of anthropological research and its roots are meaningful, and the outcome is provocative.