The idealistic impulse of Americans who go abroad to study other cultures or improve the lot of others more desperate than themselves makes a ripe subject for ironic fiction. Today’s expatriates who work for charitable organizations are the descendants of Henry James’s Continental travelers who sought to acquire the Old World’s culture and a maturity they found lacking in naive, materialistic America. Ever since, say, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, the destination of these fictional pilgrims has shifted from Europe to smaller, poorer countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and the quest is similar but different: to shed one’s superficiality not only through helping the needy but also through the encounter with a different way of being, earthy, spiritual, even supernatural and animistic. Seeking the simple good life, they often find corruption and evil, which can be equally effective in overcoming innocence.
In his two novels, Mischa Berlinski has taken up such experience. His first, Fieldwork, which was praised by critics and fellow writers (from Stephen King to Hilary Mantel) and was a finalist for the National Book Award, is, among other things, an elaborate murder mystery. A young journalist-novelist is in Thailand accompanying his girlfriend, who teaches in a local elementary school; he learns about a brilliant American woman anthropologist who killed an American missionary, and goes around the countryside seeking to put together clues that will explain her crime.
He—and we—learn a good deal about trends in anthropology and about missionary work, and the various tribes, food, and sexual and religious practices in Thailand. There are ghosts and demons, whose reality the journalist-novelist narrator, named “Mischa Berlinski” (though we are assured in an afterword that the story is entirely made up), neither confirms nor denies. This first novel, written with considerable verve and invention, grounded in extensive research, is well-nigh irresistible. Hilary Mantel, reviewing it in these pages, commented:
It’s a quirky, often brilliant debut, bounced along by limitless energy, its wry tone not detracting from its thoughtfulness. You wonder what Berlinski will write next, and have faith that it will be something completely different.*
Berlinski’s second novel, Peacekeeping, is not entirely different, in that there are still idealistic, disabused expatriates, a wry tone, in-depth research about the setting (this time Haiti), a journalist-novelist narrator, an unsolved murder, and, according to the locals, supernatural forces. But this second novel differs from the first in not entirely satisfying ways. The reasons why this should be so illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of a vastly gifted author.
The story centers on two couples: Terry and Kay White, both Caucasian and from the US, and Johel and Nadia, both Haitian. Terry White is an ex-sheriff, a veteran of law enforcement, and a failed Republican office-seeker, and he is looking for a new challenge and the chance to do good. Kay…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.