Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Wednesday, September 9, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Hunters in the Dark


Hogarth: Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne

Hogarth: Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne

Hogarth: Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne

Hogarth: Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne

Hunters in the Dark

by Lawrence Osborne

After a lucrative turn at a Cambodian casino, 28-year-old Englishman Robert Grieve walks away with two grand--a fortune in the Southeast Asian nation--and into a web of danger and deceit. This unexpected windfall drives the narrative in Lawrence Osborne's new novel, Hunters in the Dark, an intriguing story of luck, fate, human nature and colliding cultures.

Word of the winnings pocketed by a foreigner precedes Robert to Battambang in western Cambodia, a destination he chooses on a whim. During a day of sightseeing outside the city, he crosses paths with motorbike-riding American expat Simon Beaucamp. Ignoring a warning from Ouksa, a driver he hired for the day, to avoid the "bad man," Robert instead takes Simon up on his invitation to be a guest at his home that evening.

The next morning, Robert wakes up aboard a small boat motoring along a river, driven by a stranger who doesn't speak English. Dressed in Simon's elegant linen attire, Robert is missing everything else. His knapsack, with passport and cash inside, is nowhere to be seen. All he has are the clothes on his back and a $100 bill he finds stuffed in a pocket.

Far from being dismayed at the unexpected turn, Robert is secretly thrilled:  "From now on he could tell himself that he was a victim of circumstance." Even before crossing into Cambodia, during a month-long stay in Thailand--the happiest time of his life thus far--he had begun considering the possibility of not returning to England and his job as a schoolteacher. A dreamer and a loner, he despises his passivity, his predictability and his boring life in a small town. "He was waiting for something different. Beyond his own life there was, without question, a parallel one that he might one day acquire.... He realized how much he hated where he came from. He was certainly beginning to realize that he didn't want to go back. Night by night the thought grew in immensity inside him until it no longer felt quite as incredible."

Left ashore, Robert makes his way to Phnom Penh, where he easily slips into a new identity. Still wearing Simon's custom-tailored clothes and realizing that doors open when you look the part of the "tropical rich," he adopts the other man's suave, confident attitude and starts using his name. Short on funds, he seeks employment and is hired by a doctor as an English tutor for his 25-year-old daughter, Sophal, who studied medicine in Paris.

While Robert settles into his new life in the Cambodian capital, the "bad karma" cash he won and lost is wreaking havoc elsewhere as various characters--by coincidence and by design--cross paths, eager to claim the money. Simon and his girlfriend, Sothea, go on the lam with their ill-gotten gains but find their luck turning. Ouksa resurfaces, intent on providing for his disabled wife. Davuth, a sinister policeman, plans to maximize "his remaining days of corruption and opportunity and profit" before retiring.

Making Hunters in the Dark an especially compelling and textured read is the Cambodian setting. The story plays out along dusty, deserted roads, in the dense, steamy jungle, in the shadows of ancient temples and in lively Phnom Penh, a city of possibility and danger. The Cambodia depicted in the novel is an enigmatic place, haunted yet hopeful, still healing from a traumatic past when, between1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge murdered what is believed to be a fourth of the country's population, targeting intellectuals and professionals.

While younger Cambodians like Sophal have no knowledge of that dark time, it left an indelible mark on members of the older generation. Her father had his clinic seized by the Khmer Rouge and was given a choice: work as a doctor for the regime or disappear. "He chose not to disappear. As people usually do," says Sophal, who longs to escape "the gloom" that surrounds her family "like an invisible miasma." Another survivor of the Khmer Rouge era, Davuth left his humanity on the regime's killing fields, where he played executioner, "the only man alive who remembered the last moments of many dozens of people."

Robert is less concerned with Cambodia's past than its vibrant present, especially after he begins a romantic relationship with Sophal. Searching for his place in the world, he feels more comfortable among the Khmer than anywhere else. But as a visitor in a foreign land, he doesn't understand the nuances of a culture steeped in superstition and the belief that fate and karma dictate lives and actions.

Hunters in the Dark has garnered comparisons to the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith, deservedly so. The twist-filled narrative smolders with an ominous undercurrent. It slowly and steadily builds toward a shattering outcome as Davuth plays a cat-and-mouse game with an unsuspecting Robert, whose naivety is "like snow with only a tinge of dirt." His conventional upbringing has hardly made him a match for the cunning Davuth, who learned during extreme and brutal circumstances "how human beings worked on the inside." The wheel of karma, though, keeps on turning and unleashing its powerful forces. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Hogarth, $25, hardcover, 9780553447347

Hogarth: Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne


Lawrence Osborne: Ominous Moods

photo: Chris Wise

Lawrence Osborne is the critically acclaimed and internationally bestselling author of the novels The Forgiven and The Ballad of a Small Player, and of six books of nonfiction, including The Wet and the Dry. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Forbes, Harper's and several other publications. He lives in Bangkok.

What appealed to you about setting a novel in Cambodia? What came to you first--a particular character or a scene or something else?

I had been living in and visiting the country for years. What came first were the landscapes themselves. The characters came later and were mostly based on people I came across at different times. But the emotional mood came from the place. And in Cambodia, more than most places, landscape includes the vast skies, which had always struck me. They seem to have their own ominous moods.

Like Hunters in the Dark, your previous novels The Forgiven and The Ballad of a Small Player feature British characters abroad, in Morocco and Macau, respectively. What is it about Westerners in foreign lands that makes for good storytelling?

I know a lot of such characters in real life. The old colonial tropes, of course, have disappeared, so what you have today are Western immigrants (to use the correct term) who are re-creating themselves without context and without roots--and without social surveillance. Often they do this for criminal or neurotic reasons, which as a writer using the thriller genre as a vehicle, I find interesting. These characters are the very opposite of "orientalists." For them, there is nothing exotic in the world now. There is only opportunity and desperation.

Hunters in the Dark has been described as being "filled with Hitchcockian twists and turns." Did you know from the start where the story was headed and how Robert's path would unfold? 

Plots are strange things. A plot that is too rationally planned out never works, and I never write that way. I never know what's going to happen by the time I get to page 40. But as the story evolves, the unconscious seems to suggest connections and momentums (in the characters) that find a natural outcome. The writer should be as ignorant and unknowing as his characters, or there is no mystery. If you write slowly enough, this convergence of imaginary fates will occur without being forced.

There are characters in the novel who lived through Pol Pot's brutal regime in the 1970s, a period of several years during which a quarter of the country's population was killed. What challenges, if any, did you encounter incorporating this part of Cambodian history into the story?

 

I had covered the UN trial of [Khmer Rouge leader] Duch in Phnom Penh in 2008 and had met some of the survivors, including the famous painter Vann Nath. So I've heard many stories firsthand. But I didn't want to write about the 1970s directly. Everywhere around me I realized that people my own age had lived through it--they were hunters or hunted; you had to be one or the other. The regime made that inevitable. So the wounds lived on, as they always do. It was the lingering, hidden wounds that I wanted to touch on. But it would be an exaggeration to say that I incorporated that part of Cambodian history into the story--I very carefully avoided doing that. 

You've led a nomadic life, including stints residing in New York, Paris, Istanbul and other places around the world. What territories do you plan to explore next, in real life and in fiction? 

I live in Bangkok, and have for a few years, and it's a perfect base for me at the moment. However, I will likely return to my native Europe for future novels. Or at least I am considering doing so. It seems to be undergoing more violent crises than Southeast Asia, which no one would have predicted a few years back! --Shannon McKenna Schmidt


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