Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne is an atmospheric and intriguing novel that reminds me somewhat of Graham Greene’s stories of southeast Asia, a little bit of Paul Watkins’ wonderful adventure novels, but oddly, most strongly of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Robert has a more than a little of Prince Myshkin about him, with his naivety that leads himself and others into confrontations with evil and misfortune. Like Myshkin, he feels out of place and alienated and resists easy temptation and dissolution. He is not the usual white male tourist on his own in SE Asia.
Robert is out of step with the world. Like most millennials, he is trapped by an economy that leaves him with less opportunity than his father and grandfather. “The sweet bird of youth, in his case, had nowhere to perch and had not taken flight to begin with. His youth was a wingless dodo.” He is drifting, aimless, vaguely dissatisfied with his teaching job in an English village and seeks escape during summer vacations abroad. Earlier trips to Iceland and Greece failed to satisfy, so he saves up for the more exotic Thailand. Running low on funds, he goes to Cambodia where he figures his last hundred dollars might go a little farther. His driver, ominously, is named. Deth.
He has a bit of luck in a casino and is invited to stay at the elegant house of a local barang, an American expatriate named Simon. Ouksa, his new driver, warns him away, but Robert ignores him misgivings. Simon has the air of independent wealth and ease, something Robert decides to emulate when he finds suddenly himself downriver without his winnings or his passport and wearing Simon’s clothes.
Deciding that clothes make the man, Robert takes Simon’s name, but Robert is no Talented Mr. Ripley. He finds work teaching English to the stunning Khmer woman Sophal whose English is perfect and whose father inexplicably likes him. He imagines making a happy life with her family in her country.
Meanwhile, Simon has some bad luck of his own, running into Davuth, a former member of Pol Pot’s army, who remembers laying face down in the fields as the American bombers rained terror down on them, holding their faces a little above the ground so the vibrations from the bombs would not give them nosebleeds. For Davuth, “it was not nothingness that instilled fear in him. It was the morbid idea that life had meaning after all.” He is a frightening hunter.
Everyone in this book is a seeker, a hunter if you will, though some like Robert and Sophal are merely seeking happiness, others seek escape, money, security, revenge. Davuth is hunting because that is his nature, to be a hunter.
I loved Hunters in the Dark, reading it in just a day, staying up way too late and waking early to finish it. It was serious. I finished it before I made my morning coffee. The suspense builds slowly and steadily and the air of menace is built step by step, chapter by chapter. This novel has all the hallmarks of a thriller, but achieves so much more, asking us about the role of the rational and the irrational, about imperialism and westernization, about war and how its scars run deep and heal slowly, if at all. It can be read purely as a thriller, suspense novel and be perfectly enjoyable, but its deeper themes make it so much richer and more fascinating. It is the sort of book that could drive hours of book group discussion.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.