Thursday, May 8, 2008
Define - fieldwork
3. the gathering of anthropological or sociological data through the interviewing and observation of subjects in the field
I finished Mischa Berlinski's novel Fieldwork several weeks ago but I have been putting off writing a review of it. Not so much because I didn't like it, but because I don't know how to tell you about it. But, I agreed to review it for LibraryThing's Early Reviewer's program so I'm going to give it a whirl.
Fieldwork begins when its protagonist -also called Mischa Berlinski - learns about the suicide of an American anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun in a Thai prison. Berlinksi, also an American, is living in Thailand with his girlfriend and writing to earn money. He begins to investigate the story of Martiya and becomes consumed with it. The book then moves into a fairly extensive history of a family of American missionaries living in Thailand for several generations. Then we learn the story of Martiya's young life, education, and how she came to be doing fieldwork among the Dyalo people in Thailand. There are extremely detailed accounts of doing anthropological research and of the Dyalo. Mischa continues his research finally discovering how these stories come together and how Martiya came to be incarcerated.
It took me a a very long time to read this book. I enjoyed the writing, it was very conversational and there is a sort-of quirky humor in the book. The book felt very long and there are many characters. For example, I thought the story about the missionaries was going to be an aside, instead there were over 100 pages about their family history. The fieldwork section was similarly long. I have had a great interest in anthropology since taking some college classes on the subject which increased my appreciation of this part of the story. I don't feel that Amazon's description of this novel as a 'thriller' is terribly accurate. The mystery part of the story seems more like a vehicle for Berlinski to write about what he is interested in and knowledgeable about which happens to be missionaries and anthropology. It is obviously very well researched and Berlinski is a gifted writer. There was much that I liked about this book but I never felt very involved or invested in it.