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Showing 1-3 of 3 reviews(4 star). See all 10 reviews
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 November 2008
The American journalist Mischa Berlinski is the narrator in this novel, so at times one feels it might be an autobiography, especially as in an autobiography you might find the rambling structure you find in this book; and a number of footnotes contribute to that impression. But in a note at the end the author tells us that `none of this stuff happened to anyone'.

The thread that holds the book together is the fictional Berlinski's obsessive attempt to unravel the mystery of Martiya van der Leun, an American-educated anthropologist whom he had heard about but never met, who had been working with the animist Dyalo hill tribe in Northern Thailand, had been in prison for murder and had apparently committed suicide there.

(If you google Dyalo, the references are all to this novel. Its name is invented, but the author's note suggests that the inspiration for it might be a tribe called the Lisu. The other neighbouring tribes mentioned in the book all really exist.)

The fictional Berlinski goes to meet as many people as possible who knew Martiya; and he then gives you such long and detailed histories of their lives that we quite forget about Martiya: at one stage there is no mention of her for some ninety pages.

The person she was accused of having murdered was one David Walker. We learn more and more about Martiya's life - and very interesting it is - without getting any clues, until very near the end, to the mystery of why she killed David. In fact the first meeting between Martiya and David comes just seventeen pages before the conclusion of the book.

David belonged to an extended American family, several of whom were or had been Christian missionaries. Mischa seeks them out, and we get the life story of David's missionary parents, whom Mischa meets, and of his missionary grandparents. Though one wonders why were are told all this (only one incident in the parents' life, briefly alluded to, will have a bearing on Martiya's story), it is still very well and atmospherically done. The author Belinski writes very well, brings people very much to life and gets the reader interested in them. These missionaries may be a little odd in their total faith, their belief in evil spirits, their prayerfulness and their expectation of an imminent Rapture; but, unlike those in, say, Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, they are presented affectionately and without mockery or condescension.

Author Belinski, we are told, has worked as a journalist in Thailand, so he is clearly knowledgeable about that country and beautifully evokes its sights and its atmosphere. Though he curiously spells the author of the Golden Bough as Frazier, he is also knowledgeable about anthropology, its theory as studied in academic institutions and its often far from glamorous field work practice - but every now and again an anthropologist goes `native'. One wonders, of course, whether he has invented the dyal, the rice planting rites of the Dyalo people; perhaps he has based them imaginatively on the customs of some other tribes described by Sir James Frazer: at any rate he has made them sound very convincing. They play a crucial role in the story, but, characteristically, we learn about them only on page 237, three-quarters of the way through.

Despite its structural oddities, this is a book full of life. I have enjoyed it very much and was fully involved with it.
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on 21 December 2013
This is one of the most captivating books I've read ... Totally absorbing with an intelligent plot, fascinating attention to detail and yet never pompous. The prose is beautiful and a delight to read.
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on 1 July 2009
very interesting, very well researched, keeps you interested at every turn, very well written - i personally found the section on the missionaries a bit too long, because i am not very appreciative of that type of religious people, but the other two strains of the novel (the narrator's life in Thailand and the Anthropologist's mystery) are well developed and fascinating.
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