Throwing caution to the wind and perhaps even buoyed along by a sense of adventure, Mischa Berlinski and his girlfriend, Rachel – he's a journalist and she's a high school teacher – face a brand new ease and a sense of ex-pat freedom when they decide to leave the boredom of life in America for the remote Chaing Mai area of Northern Thailand.
They've been living in Thailand for about a year when fellow ex-pat Josh O'Connor tells them of the strange legend of American anthropologist Martiya van der Luen, sent to Chaing Mai Central Prison for ten years, convicted of murdering a missionary named David Walker by shooting him in the back two times with a hunting rifle.
"Such is the power of a good story," says Mischa who over the next few months can't stop thinking about Martiya and her terrible deed. With his soul in full swing and his journalistic instincts piqued, he is certain he can write a piece as a perfect true crime story and in the process figure out why Martiya killed David.
Mischa's inquiries begin with a communiqué from Martyia's aunt in Holland, Elena Cal Elena van der Leun, who tells Mischa that she does not know the details of her niece's crime and does not wish to speculate on why she did it.
She does tell him that Martyia's life was always unstable, and that her fate was somehow linked to the Walters, a Christian family devoted to spreading the evangelical word throughout the region.
Apparently the Walkers were just one part of a group of evangelical societies in the north of Thailand that had conceived the project of converting the local natives, the Dyalo, to Christianity. In fact, the Walkers had been living in this region of Thailand for a couple of generations before their lives tragically coincided with Martiya.
The Walkers have long held that the Dyalo were in "bondage to their demons" and that Martyia's propensity to commit such a horrible crime was caused because she "got into the hills and slowly but surely these demons mastered her."
The gifted and brilliant Martiya did indeed struggle with the language, the weather,
and the ubiquitous strangeness of the Dyalo people. Her ultimate sad dealings,
though, were the devastating result of someone who just couldn't separate fantasy from reality, her life perhaps too much infused with the hovering darkness of the Walker's fervent fundamentalism.
Alternating between the past and present, Berlinski recounts the history of the Walker family and their efforts to create a kingdom commensurate in grandeur and in beauty, and also in suffering, with Christ's ambitions: "the great missionary rallying cry was heard from every evangelical pulpit in America."
A large part of the novel deals with the ins and outs of classical anthropological studies, lending validity to the unique perspective of those academics who spend their lives undertaking fieldwork in the world's most remote places, even when these studies are sometimes taken to extremes.
Although Fieldwork tends in places to get a bit bogged down with unnecessary detail, Berlinski's clipped and snappish style, and his ability to present a definitive sense of place both in Thailand and in America, keep the story moving along at a brisk enough place. The author also does a good job of tying up the story line, when the mysteries of Martyia's strange actions are eventually unveiled.