I appreciated and enjoyed Berlinski's novel that infuses scholarly information on anthropology with a suspense story set in rural Thailand. It is writI 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.
Thank you to First Reads for sending me this book for review.
There's something both comforting and compelling about literature whose main theme is "hoThank you to First Reads for sending me this book for review.
There's something both comforting and compelling about literature whose main theme is "home," in all its characteristics. There's the physical structure of a house, there's the city, state, or country, and then there's the more complex and individual idea of home, the home that lives within our hearts. Maybe because I was a huge fan of THE WIZARD OF OZ since I was a little girl, I gravitate to these stories. Too, I was uprooted right before high school to a different part of the country, and I wobbled for a while with my environment, until one day I realized that home is something more abstract to me. Sue Miller's latest novel addresses all my favorite themes by exploring the various concepts of home. I hoped that her execution and style would entice me as much as her ideas, but, unfortunately, once the lively set-up was established, the book just coasted on and became a bit drab, like it was searching too hard for reinforcement. The gravity of the story hovered in mid-air, but never hit ground. I didn't feel it emotionally.
Frankie Rowley has been doing aid work in Africa for fifteen years, and after her last love affair goes south, she returns to the States to stay with her parents, at least for the time being. Her parents have retired and settled into what used to be their summer home in Pomeroy, New Hampshire. Growing up, Frankie, her sister Liz, and her parents moved around a lot, because Frankie's father, Alfie, worked in academia and had a hard time settling. Frankie's most steady home was actually the farmhouse in Pomeroy, since they went there every summer. Alfie was intellectually gifted, and attained many master's degrees and a PhD. He was eclectic but yet shallowly involved, and self-absorbed. Eventually, Alfie got tenured by an undistinguished college in Connecticut.
Along with Alfie's intellectual restiveness, he was arm's length from his daughters. He taught them scholarly material, but was a hands-off kind of father. So, Frankie's relationship with Alfie was restricted to her achievements, more or less. Her mother, Sylvia, also an academic who taught college English, possessed some bitterness and resentment due to her subservience to Alfie's capriciousness. When she inherited the farmhouse, she felt like she had her own place of solitude, finally, and she would often leave Alfie in the city and come here by herself.
But, now, Alfie is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and in keeping with the theme, it was a brilliant stroke of Miller's to examine home as the most personal of places--the identity--the place where the mind resides. What happens when you lose that? Moreover, Alfie tends to wander. Miller subtly parallels the aimless wandering of Alzheimer's with the wanderlust of Frankie.
This is all information that is set up near the start of the book. Frankie is "homeless," as she puts it, because she is conflicted about returning to Africa. She meets an attractive man in Pomeroy, a newspaper editor named Bud Jacobs, who left the fast-paced, competitive journalist's life in New York in order to live in a peaceful country community, and sought Pomeroy out when he saw the newspaper was for sale. Frankie, like her father, has a hard time settling, staying in one place.
Compounding all these questions of home is Pomeroy itself. There have always been the year-round people and the summer people.
"In the old days...the lines had been more sharply drawn. There were the summer people, and then there were the townspeople. The summer people had work elsewhere, personal lives elsewhere, all of which were invisible when they were here, whereas the townspeople's lives and their work were visible to anyone who cared to look--especially when they were working in the summer for the summer people."
And, now, some of the summer people (like Frankie's parents) have become year-round people. Any lines that were once drawn are now blurring.
And, the motif of home is edged even further when a streak of fires occur to houses in Pomeroy. The incidents happen close together, and at the start, it only happens to the summer people's homes, while standing empty, awaiting the families' arrival.
The framework/bones of this book, with the themes of home, drew me in. But, it didn't engage me for the long haul. Once Miller set it up, and I was into it for a while, it kind of went flat for me. Rather than organic growth spurts to the story, it became either predictable or redundant. And, although she created distinctive characters at the start, they kind of sputtered as the story progressed. Some prosaic events occurred, and the entanglements and interactions between characters failed to have lift-off, unless it was forced. It lacks dynamism, energy, charisma. It was like a talented singer that only sings one note. Miller has all the right tools in there, but the execution, after the first several chapters, felt bland. THE ARSONIST, when all is said and done, lacks fire....more