Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski

I read this 2007 National Book Award finalist because Mindy Withrow said it was good. She was right.

End of review. Read it.


Just kidding. But you really should read the book before you read my thoughts about the book because there are many, many things to discuss here. But you should come to the book without preconceived notions. So go thou hence to the bookstore or the library, and then come back, and we’ll talk.

Martiya is an anthropologist and a murderer. How do we reconcile those two legacies? That’s a lot of what the book is about. How could such an intelligent, lively, promising, woman have first buried herself in a native village in northern Thailand and then killed a man in cold blood? Make no mistake, Martiya does bury herself. She goes to Thailand looking for a soul-changing experience, and she gets one. She can never go back to Berkley again, not even to Western civilization anywhere. She becomes a part of the Dyalo culture she is studying, then becomes an outcast, then when she tries to be reborn into Western Christianity, she is rejected again.

Looking at this novel from my own perspective, that of an evangelical Christian sympathetic to the missionaries, the Walker family, I read the story of a woman, unsaved and unprotected by the blood of Jesus Christ, who decides to take up residence with demons and becomes enslaved to them and to the evil that they represent. In the Walkers, especially Thomas and Naomi Walker, I see a family of Christians who make a crucial mistake in their dealings with Martiya, in not seeing her as sinner in need of salvation just as much as the Dyalos need liberation from demonic bondage. Thomas and Naomi Walker pay for that mistake with the life of their only son.

However, one could read the story as the saga of an anthropologist who is driven mad by her long exile from Western civilization and who is finally broken by the single-minded jealousy of a an offended woman (Naomi) who should be able to overlook Martiya’s sin if Christianity is really true. However, I am left with questions that make me want to re-read the novel to see what I missed:

Are all the characters in the novel possessed by their own particular view of the world such that they can’t see each other or love each other? Why does Martiya seem to be so happy in the end in the prison as she works on her ethnography of prison life? And if she is happy in that work, why does she commit suicide? Because she’s finished? Because Rice is finished with her? How do Laura and Thomas Walker reconcile their part in their son’s death with their continuing work as missionaries? Why does the author imply that it takes a supernatural experience of hearing singing angels in the sky to become a committed Christian? Does he believe that? Why does Martiya’s paramour Hupasha remain faithful to Christ even after others have fallen away? What is the significance of drugs, particularly opium in the novel? Martiya commits suicide with a ball of opium. The narrator smokes opium and says that he hears the final episode of the story from the lips of Martiya’s ghost. Is opium related to the demonic practices of the Dyalo, to the traditions that Christianity is there to destroy? Can one enter into the native’s point of view and still remain an impartial observer, a scientist? Once you’ve “gone native” are you a better anthropologist or a worse one?

I may have to add this novel to my list of all-time favorites. It’s absolutely fascinating on many levels. And as an added fillip to my reading of the novel, it bears some relation to things that are going on in my own family. Eldest Daughter’s boyfriend just left to go to Thailand with this group to live in a a poor section of Bangkok for four months as a missionary. I also think he’s trying to figure out the course of his own life, looking for a “transformation of the observer’s soul” in the perhaps overly dramatic words of the author of Fieldwork. We’ll see what he finds.

7 thoughts on “Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski

  1. So glad you read it and loved it as I did! More questions than answers, which in my opinion is crucial to great novels. When I met Berlinski last year, he indicated his next novel will be set in Haiti (where he lives) with genuine zombies–so I’m betting we have more good conversation on the way!

  2. I agree – this is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long, long time. In fact, reading your review makes me think it’s time for a re-read!

  3. What an interesting premise for a novel, it sounds fascinating. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on it.

  4. Okay, I just added it to my wish-list. I’d like to recommend The Spirit of the Jungle, which is the true story of a shaman turned Christian. Because it’s from a shaman’s perspective, it’s fascinating to see how he views the incoming anthropologists, Catholic nuns, and evangelical missionaries. It was SO so interesting.

  5. I left a comment on this post when it was first put up, but I just finished Fieldwork and wanted to comment again.

    It was a great book, and I just have to recommend two books to go with it. First of all, it turns out that the Walker family is based on a real family, the Morse family, whose autobiographical book I have read and enjoyed ( It was fascinating to compare Berlinski’s retelling of their story to their own voice. Since he is not evangelical, at times I think his depiction of them seems fake – he may miss some of the subtleties of the culture. The Morse’s story is so unusual … that alone makes it a good read.

    I also mentioned in my earlier comment that I think the book Spirit of the Jungle would be a great companion read, and I stand by that comment. While fieldwork examines the clashing perspectives of the missionary and anthropologist entering a tribe, Spirit of the Jungle is a TRUE story written from autobiographical interviews with a shamen-turned-Christian. His perspective on missionaries and anthropologists entering his tribe is so enlightening, and his personal experience in the spirit world is really strange from a Western perspective. Highly recommended!

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