Like eating fine dark chocolate, you just can’t have too much of Osborne’s latest novel. His mastery of language and his sensory encapsulation of a foreign land makes this a beautiful and creepy story, a fantastic blend of poetic language and bone-chilling tension. Robert Grieve, a
28-year-old teacher from England, is somewhat adrift in Cambodia. When we first meet him, he’s just won two thousand dollars from The Diamond Crown Casino.
Thrilled by the fact that he now has a measure of independence in this dark and foreign country, Robert drifts from the city of Pailin to the town of Battambang while thinking of his parents and his home on the Sussex Downs with a sort of distant and wistful sadness.
Life for Robert is cheap and unhurried. Here, amidst the Creamcake French facades, the old shop houses, and a bridge that looks baked in the sun, Robert looks down at his own shabby clothes, his semi-poverty, his forced solitude and austerity. He realizes that he’s warmed to a country where almost everybody is poorer than himself and where death and suffering seem to be a part of everyday life. Initially arriving in Cambodia without any plan or vision for a two-month summer holiday, Robert begins to settle into the heat and the pace, realizing there is a life here that he could never have imagined.
From this point on, Osborne unfurls a tense, dark story centering on the belief that innocence is just as disconcerting as evil. Upon hooking up with local a guide, Ouska, Robert finds himself plunged into the orbit of American bike rider Simon Beaucamp. The two “barangs” strike up an instant friendship, albeit one laced with a sinister mix of attraction and suspicion. Robert wants to have a drink with his new friend, but from the outset, Ouska has a bad feeling about Simon.
He gives Robert an emphatic warning: there’s something too smoothly oiled and implacable about this strange American man who perhaps peddles in drugs and seems to possess “a subtle menace” that never quite breaks into open view.
At Simon’s direction, Robert detours to Phnom Penh to stay at Simon’s house. Here he meets Simon’s girlfriend, Sothea, and the three smoke some opium, pondering how their days seem pinned down by a volatile mix of stress and sweat and misery. Clearly Simon and Sothea have their own agenda in this land where the nights perhaps hold the key to survival, a way out of the stultifying labyrinths of the days. The night ends badly, with Robert having no way of knowing whether a gentlemanly favor was done to him. Cast adrift on a boat on vast toffee-colored lake--and wearing freshly laundered off-white linen with only with a hundred-dollar bill to his name--Robert is at first at a loss and then secretly thrilled. He tells himself that he was indeed a victim of circumstance.
While the dangerous, exotic setting is central, the kernel of the mystery is in the chance connections between the main characters, each harboring their own agendas. Realizing he’s been the victim of a confidence trickster, Robert decides to go invisible, booking a room at the majestic Colonial Mansions back in Phnom Penh. Every step of the way, things have been laid out for him. Burnished by sun and youthful idleness, Robert meets Doctor Sar, who enlists him to teach English to his beautiful daughter, Sophal. While Sar detects hidden depths to this handsome, blonde-headed Englishman, Sophal knows that Robert’s accounts of himself are not quite true.
He may be young, nicely aloof, and intemperate, but she knows he’s not a teacher--she can feel it in her bones.
As Sophal gets closer to Robert, they join together in romantic interlude. Simon’s nemesis, meanwhile, appears in the form of Davuth, a local policeman who decides to take the law into his own hands. Everything changes in this ghostly land where dreams, illusion, and desperation are forgotten in a perfect moment of bloody murder. No one character escapes unscathed: from Simon, whose life falls into a low haze of heroin, to Sothea, whose future is taken away from her by a disaster of her own making; to Davuth, the true “hunter in the dark” who feels his prey even in a greater darkness; to Sophal, who longed to be back in
her own culture after her sojourn in Paris (only in Cambodia can Sophal “float or sink according her own laws of gravity);” to Robert, who sometimes seems like disaster incarnate as he lumbers through this new, strange, chaotic world, sometimes without a clue.
Although the first chapters move slowly, the author is adept showing how karma, superstition, and dirty money can control desire. Similar in fashion to Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness, Osborne’s beautiful, deliberative style conveys a sense of timelessness that embodies modern Cambodia, a country that guards its ancient treasures. Finally, Osborne offers up a landscape fuelled by heat and rain, and by an often menacing, sinister horizon that is dark in color but silently pulses with interior flashes of fire.