four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
2007

A-FieldworkMischa Berlinski, an American freelance journalist living in Thailand, meets with an old friend and hears the fascinating story of Martiya van der Leun. A renowned American anthropologist who lived with the primitive Dyalo tribe in a remote mountain village near the Thai-Burmese border, Martiya committed suicide while serving a life sentence for murder in the Chiang Mai Central Prison. Her victim was David Walker, the youngest member of a family of missionaries also living with the Dyalo. Sensing a story, Mischa tracks down Martiya’s friends and family, studies her work, and visits the surviving Walkers in an attempt to piece together Martiya’s past and comprehend her motive for murder.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 336 pages. $24. ISBN: 0374299161

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"A reader doesn’t have to have any interest in Christian missionary work, anthropology, or the hill tribes of Thailand to be riveted, but odds are you’ll have a greater appreciation for all three—not to mention Berlinski’s storytelling abilities—by the time you put Fieldwork down." Michael Norman

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Fieldwork is a story about stories, a tale told by a narrator with the same name as the author, a disquisition on the unknowability of others, a comic thriller and a riff on the similarities between anthropology, evangelicalism and fiction. It is also a downright good yarn." Anne Trubek

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Fieldwork is a notable piece of first fiction—at once deeply serious about questions of consequence and refreshingly mindful of traditional storytelling conventions. If his narrative sometimes bumps against a young writer’s impulse to tell you everything he knows, it’s a forgivable shortcoming, particularly when stacked against this novel’s admirable strengths." Tim Rutten

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Chock-a-block with such un-trendy ingredients as an unintrusive narrator, global reach and a big cast of memorable characters, Fieldwork is both wildly readable and highly intelligent." Claude Peck

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"It begins as a high-toned pulp mystery, then leaps without a sound to an examination of storytelling itself. That it’s still a brisk read, without hedging its goals or welding them to a thick plot, tells us Berlinski has accomplished much and, with luck, has a bright future ahead." Kevin Smokler

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Bravura storytelling is his first order of business—but underlying every narrative twist, and every lively new character who strides onto the page to shed more light on Martiya’s violent act, is the question of whether any culture can meaningfully connect with another culture." Michael Upchurch

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"With its offbeat style, Berlinski’s consummate fieldwork—fictional though it may be—produces an intricate whodunit, both disturbing and entertaining. Even as he confesses to feeling ‘like the baton in a relay race of faulty memories and distant recollections,’ Berlinski meticulously unearths Martiya’s ‘good story,’ taking readers on an intoxicating journey filled with missing souls and vengeful spirits." Terry Hong

Critical Summary

Mischa Berlinski originally intended to write an account of the real-life Lisu tribe of Thailand, but held scant interest in the project until he decided to fictionalize the natives and turned his research into a novel. In this readable and clever debut, told almost entirely in backstory, Berlinski explores the problems inherent in trying to assume the perspective of another person or culture and the enduring conflict between faith and science. While he treats each perspective with genuine empathy, he refuses to take sides. Critics had a couple of complaints—a lagging secondary plot and a few descriptions with a textbook feel—but dismissed them as minor. They unanimously praised Berlinski’s wit, style, and intelligence in this atmospheric "novel that never fails to fascinate" (Minneapolis Star Tribune).