Fieldwork A Novel

Mischa Berlinski




Trade Paperback

368 Pages



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A National Book Award Finalist
Longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

The New York Magazine Best Debut of the Year
A Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the Year
A San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of the Year
A Chicago Tribune Favorite Book of the Year
A Seattle Times Favorite Book of the Year

A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year
A Library Journal Best Book of the Year
A Kirkus Reviews Top 10 Book of the Year

When his girlfriend takes a job as a schoolteacher in northern Thailand, Mischa Berlinski goes along for the ride, working as little as possible for one of Thailand's English-language newspapers. One evening a fellow expatriate tips him off to a story. A charismatic American anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun, has been found dead—a suicide—in the Thai prison where she was serving a fifty-year sentence for murder.

Motivated first by simple curiosity, then by deeper and more mysterious feelings, Mischa searches relentlessly to discover the details of Martiya's crime. His search leads him to the origins of modern anthropology—and into the family history of Martiya's victim, a brilliant young missionary whose grandparents left Oklahoma to preach the Word in the 1920s and never went back. Finally, Mischa's obsession takes him into the world of the Thai hill tribes, whose way of life becomes a battleground for two competing, and utterly American, ways of looking at the world.


Praise for Fieldwork

"[Berlinski is] a gifted storyteller delivering a simple story . . . Fieldwork is quite definitely a novel, exuberant and inventive, affectionate toward its characters but not indulgent of them. It has none of the cultivated flatness of modern reportage, and one of sparseness of line . . . It's a quirky, often brilliant debut, bounced along by limitless energy, its wry tone not detracting from its thoughtfulness."—Hilary Mantel, The New York Review of Books

"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, The Washington Post

"In a thickly plotted twist on the genre of aimless Americans seeking redemption abroad, Berlinski's freelance-journalist narrator (also named Mischa Berlinski) stumbles on the case of an anthropologist who killed herself in a Thai prison while serving a sentence for her inexplicable murder of a Christian missionary. Fascinated, Berlinski investigates the missionary and the anthropologist's shared interest in the spiritual and social life of a particular Thai village, presenting an enormously detailed account of the village as if it were a history of real events . . . The book succeeds in evoking the quixotic appeal of both the anthropological and missionary enterprises—of documenting other culture and of converting them."—The New Yorker

"Mischa Berlinski's first book, Fieldwork, is that rare thing—an entertainingly readable first novel of ideas . . . Berlinski's narrative is brilliantly plotted and builds to a shattering but entirely credible conclusion. There's a particular authenticity attached to the settings and to the lives of the Dyalo, though they are a fictional people . . . What sets Berlinski's book apart from others like it is its utterly contemporary evocation of a compelling old dichotomy: faith and reason. Martiya, the anthropologist, speaks for that latter tradition, the missionary Walker family for the former. Both make their cases in an entirely American idiom, and it is the great strength of Berlinski's novel that he lets them do so on an intellectually level playing field on which two competing ways of understanding the world and its people contend . . . A less interesting writer would knowingly draw the irony implicit in the shared magical thinking of both the missionaries and the tribesmen. Berlinski, however, is too interested in both viewpoints to caricature either, and the result is a genuinely unsentimental empathy that gives his narrative its real propulsive force . . . [Contains] a fearless generosity of spirit that refuses to take a side . . . 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, Los Angeles Times

"A sad and powerful tale . . . Inspired and courageous."—San Francisco Chronicle

"An impeccably structured novel portraying two strikingly different milieus . . . Bravura storytelling."—The Seattle Times

"Berlinski provides a vivid picture of missionaries, devils, demons, and paganism in the distant Thailand hills. It seems people all over the world believe in spirits, ghosts, and more."—Florence Waskelewicz Clowes, Polish American Journal

"A top-notch debut novel . . . 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. Grade: A."—The Christian Science Monitor

"Mischa Berlinski brings a wealth of vivid detail to his narrative, and writes with real authority. Fieldwork is as fascinating as an ethnographer's private journal, as entertaining as a finely plotted thriller."—John Wray, author of Canaan's Tongue

"The West has long equated exotic peoples with the dark and the wild. It is the strength of Mischa Berlinski's novel to chart those elements in the heart of the anthropology that seeks to explore them. He turns received ideas on their heads, for he makes us unsure about the things we thought we knew while showing us truths that we like to hide from ourselves."—Nigel Barley, author of The Innocent Anthropologist

"Part of the charm of Berlinski's first novel is that he has accomplished what many educators have struggled to do for years—to turn a seemingly dull academic subject into a riveting read. The cleverly plotted story focuses on Martiya van der Leun, who has committed suicide in a Thai women's prison, where she was serving a 50-year sentence for murdering an American missionary. A young farang (white and foreign) journalist named Mischa Berlinski learns that Martiya was an American anthropologist who for years lived with a tribe called the Dyalos to study its mysterious culture. Mischa finds Martiya's story—and exactly why she committed the crime—so oddly compelling that he dedicates his life to understanding Martiya's fate. He becomes so involved, in fact, that he winds up sacrificing badly needed income and the relationship with his longtime girlfriend. Berlinski the novelist manages to inject just enough arcane information about tribal Thai culture to be informative but not tedious, all the while employing an admirably lighthearted sense of humor."—Kevin Greczek, Library Journal

"A journalist investigates the suicide of an American anthropologist serving time for murder in a Thai jail. Mischa and Rachel are a young, bored, American couple who decide, upon college graduation, to move to northern Thailand, where Rachel accepts a job teaching first grade in Chiang Mai and Mischa pieces together enough freelance journalism gigs to make a living. But Mischa's focus changes when another wanderlust American tips him off to the riveting story of Martiya van der Leun, a middle-aged anthropologist who overdosed on opium while serving a murder sentence in Chiang Mai's women's prison. Mischa has almost no information about the crime, and leads on Martiya's life seem scarce, but he pursues the story with an anthropological fervor—one that he soon learns would have made Martiya proud. He follows Martiya's life from her childhood in an Indonesian village to her teenage years in California to her career in Thailand, where she began as a field researcher studying the Dyalo people. Slowly he uncovers important puzzle pieces, learning most notably that Martiya's murder victim was David Walker, a fourth-generation American missionary from a family of Dyalo experts, and that what had began for Martiya as an academic project with the Dyalo eventually became for her an obsessive way of life. As Mischa integrates himself into the facets of Martiya's story, he becomes as consumed with it as she had become with the Dyalo, and when Rachel returns to America at the end of the year, Mischa finds that he cannot leave. Berlinski's methodical account of the factors that led a rational intellectual to commit such a heinous crime is air-tight and intensely gripping. But equally notable is his ability to conjure such an elaborate portrait of the fictional Dyalo, and his treatment of both religious missionary and anthropological fieldwork is subtle and insightful. Impeccable research and a juicy, intricate plot pay off in this perfectly executed debut."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A fictional version of the author serves as the narrator of Berlinski's . . . first novel, a thriller set in Thailand. Mischa Berlinski, a reporter who's moved to northern Thailand to be with his schoolteacher girlfriend, Rachel, hears from his friend Josh about the suicide of Martiya van der Leun, an American anthropologist, in a Thai jail, where she was serving 50 years for murder. As Mischa begins to investigate Martiya's life and supposed crimes, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the woman . . . Berlinski, who has been a journalist in Thailand, vividly portrays the exotic setting and brings depth and nuance to his depictions of the Thais . . . A lean, interesting tale about, among many other things, the differences between modern and tribal cultures."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Mischa Berlinski

  • Mischa Berlinski was born in New York in 1973. He studied classics at the University of California at Berkeley and at Columbia University. He has worked as a journalist in Thailand. He lives in Rome.

  • Mischa Berlinski Copyright Louis Monier




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