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Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne
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Hunters in the Dark

by Lawrence Osborne

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The best I can say is that it's not the worst book I've read this year, but it's not my kind of thing at all. I'm not sure what I expected but I found it tedious. Nothing felt authentic or even plausible. The characters where little more than stick figures. There was very little depth. The author could have developed quite a bit more to explain who, what, and why that would have made things more interesting but it would still not have been my thing. ( )
  shakenbake212 | Jul 21, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The book follows a British teacher losing himself in Cambodia, and at first I thought it might just be a more mundane version of Heart of Darkness. I also thought Cambodia might just end up as the strange, exotic place for the white guy to get lost. Eventually, though, the point of view opened up and we got to know several other characters and some twistier, more noirish plot surfaced. The book ended up saying something about Cambodia itself and not just the man who was visiting. I don't know much about the country, so I can't vouch for its accuracy, but Osborne successfully described it as both an sultry, impenetrable example of foreignness and then later tried to make some real comments about the lingering effects of the horrors that Pol Pot brought onto the nation. It kept my attention and kept me wanting to keep going. I would have wanted to finish it even if I hadn't been an early reviewer, but there were still some problems. It occasionally fell victim to that tendency for characters to do something or go somewhere for no reason but that they felt drawn to it, which, absent some mystical force drawing them, just feels like sloppy, arbitrary plotting, and the reason they went was because the author wanted them to. ( )
  westcott | Apr 17, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Name of Book: Hunters in the Dark

Author: Lawrence Osborne

ISBN: 978-0-553-44736-1

Publisher: Hogarth

Type of book: Cambodia, white male/Asian female relationships, Khmer, tutoring, identity, karma, exploring the jungles, ghosts, money, thievery, travel, aimlessness

Year it was published: 2015

Summary:

From the novelist the New York Times compares to Paul Bowles, Evelyn Waugh and Ian McEwan, an evocative new work of literary suspense

Adrift in Cambodia and eager to side-step a life of quiet desperation as a small-town teacher, 28-year-old Englishman Robert Grieve decides to go missing. As he crosses the border from Thailand, he tests the threshold of a new future.

And on that first night, a small windfall precipitates a chain of events-- involving a bag of jinxed money, a suave American, a trunk full of heroin, a hustler taxi driver, and a rich doctor s daughter-- that changes Robert s life forever.

Hunters in the Dark is a sophisticated game of cat and mouse redolent of the nightmares of Patricia Highsmith, where identities are blurred, greed trumps kindness, and karma is ruthless. Filled with Hitchcockian twists and turns, suffused with the steamy heat and pervasive superstition of the Cambodian jungle, and unafraid to confront difficult questions about the machinations of fate, this is a masterful novel that confirms Lawrence Osborne s reputation as one of our finest contemporary writers.

NPR "Best Books of 2016" - Staff Picks, Realistic Fiction, Seriously Great Writing, and Tales from Around the World selection"

Characters:

I'm not sure where to start with the main characters which include Robert Grieve, a young twenty-something male that's filled with wanderlust who seems to want something but isn't sure what, thus he travels to Cambodia because its different and somewhere he hasn't been before. He meets up with an American, Simon Beauchamp who strikes me as sort of an older version of Robert who also has a Khmer girlfriend/wife who is hooked on drugs. Robert meets up with a Khmer woman by the name of Sophal who is a world traveler and is bitter and jaded. There is also Sophal's parents, namely her father who asks Robert to be an English teacher for his daughter when his daughter speaks perfect English and who is elegant and sophisticated.

Theme:

I honestly am stuck on what the theme should have been. Way too meandering for my tastes.

Plot:

The story is in third person narrative from many characters' points of view, and there was next to nothing when it came to plot, but it went something like this: a former teacher goes to Cambodia just because he wants to escape and literally do nothing. He wins money, gets robbed by an American, gets told lots of times that he is something Khmer women would pursue, pretends to be an American, meets a Khmer woman and decides to pursue relationship with her. There are other stuff going on, but I couldn't make heads or tails of how they fit in with the story.

Author Information:
(From goodreads.com)

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist currently residing in New York City.

Osborne was educated at Cambridge and Harvard, and has since led a nomadic life, residing for years in France, Italy, Morocco, the United States, Mexico, Thailand and Istanbul.

He is the author of the novel Ania Malina, a book about Paris, Paris Dreambook, the essay collection The Poisoned Embrace, a controversial book about autism called American Normal, and three subsequent travel books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux between 2004 and 2009: a book about wine, The Accidental Connoisseur, The Naked Tourist, and an account of expatriate life in Bangkok called Bangkok Days. His short stories have appeared in many American magazines. His story Volcano originally published in Tin House was selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2012. His novel The Forgiven was published in 2012 to widespread acclaim. It was selected by The Economist as one of the Best Books of the Year for 2012.

He has been published widely as a journalist in the United States, most notably in the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Gourmet, Salon, Playboy, and The Conde Naste Traveler. He was also been an occasional op ed columnist at Forbes.com and is a frequent contributor to Newsweek International, The Daily Beast and The Wall Street Journal Magazine.His recent feature for Playboy, Getting a Drink in Islamabad won a 2011 Thomas Lowell Award for Travel Journalism.

Opinion:

I like books that meander, that show off a place or time I haven't been in before, but this is not the book that does it well. The descriptions of the place and of the atmosphere added extremely little to the characters and their growth as people. In fact, I have no idea what the story should have been about because it seems that the main character simply exists and that's it. He does not possess conflict that could make it a human story but he simply lives and does nothing. I've read classics previously and believe it or not enjoyed a lot of pre-1800s classics that are about living, but the classics were infused with interest and drama, perhaps the authors had a perfect balance for me of conflict and description of the place while this is one is nothing but description, and also, it's annoying that Asian women in this book throw themselves at white men. ( )
  Sveta1985 | Feb 24, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Hunters in the Dark is my first Lawrence Osborne novel, though I’d often heard him compared to Graham Greene and Paul Bowles. Reading a little into Osborne’s background, I was struck by how rare it is to see a writer like him these days, one who lives as nomad moving from one locale to another, for whom traveling and writing are synonymous. Hunters in the Dark is a template of this. In the novel, the main character, twenty-something-year-old Robert Grieve, finds himself in Cambodia, running afoul and adrift in world that is both alluring and alien to him. This alone might be enough to turn off a lot of readers, myself included, but Osborne deftly avoids falling into the common pitfall of white-man-in-awe-of-exotic-East. There is a hint of that wide-eyed awe only because our main character is such fish out of water, but Osborne quickly turns that tired trope on its head in startling new ways.

Hunters in the Dark evokes the kind of tension and contrasts we see in Henry James’s Daisy Miller: the old world butting heads with a new world and modernity; how innocence and wonder is strafed by cynicism and nihilism. Here it is the Western world that is in decline: “They were middle-class and unemployed, or so it seemed, their education now of little value, and they seemed to be able to scrounge enough money to take leave of their senses for months on end. Once upon a time, the Khmers had been in awe of them. But now, their dirtiness and scruffiness and unruliness had dimmed their image at the very moment that the Chinese and Thais had come into considerable amounts of money. The barangs no longer seemed as formidable as their grandparents, even if their grandparents had been hippies in the sixties.”

Disillusioned with his life as a teacher back in England, Robert takes off to Southeast Asia, first spending time in Thailand, then crossing the border into Cambodia. He becomes swept up in the notion of starting a new life, of shedding his life of predetermined days, a ‘life measured out in coffee spoons’ so to speak. Robert is our naive, ingenuous Daisy Miller, who loses himself in a country of deep ancient history, but also a country that is just coming to terms with the trauma of the Pol Pot regime.

It is a visit to a casino where he spends the last of his savings and wins the princely sum of $2000 that changes everything. The money sets into motion a complex series of events, not unlike the beating wings of a butterfly setting off a hurricane.

Robert hires Ouksa, a Cambodian driver, who takes him around to various sights. He plays tourist long enough to meet Simon Beaucamp, a charismatic, smooth-talking American who takes Robert to visit his luxurious house overlooking the river, despite the protestations from Ouksa who senses something awry about Simon. Robert later makes it to Phnom Penh. This time without any of his belongings. Without his passport and no money, he wonders around in a stupor until he finds luck again when he is hired as an English tutor to the daughter of a wealthy Khmer family. In this role, he decides fate has given him an opportunity to reinvent himself. He takes the name of his American acquaintance, Simon.

What is remarkable about Hunters is how subtle the menace is throughout and how it colors and infuses the smallest gestures and actions. Osborne’s writing is precise, the details sharp and specific. When he describes something, you experience it exactly; the scene appears in your mind in sharp relief. And yet his writing also casts shadows, and double-edged meanings and symbols abound:

“When Ouksa had driven off, the two white men sat on the veranda with gin and tonics. The open rafters of the house seemed immense in the night shadows, the moths spinning around the wooden beams. It looked like a house which Simon had built himself since it was so much better looking than the houses he had seen up till then. Simon put on some music from the house above them. He took out his ornate Moroccan chessboard, with its pieces carved from argun wood and hand-painted, and they set it up on the coffee table between them. He said he had bought long ago in Essaouria on the Atlantic coast and it had a spirit that helped his game. He laid out the piece and they flipped for black and white and Robert got black. He kicked off his sandals and the alcohol swelled within him and he absorbed the humid smell of datura coming in from the forest. The roneat music was faintly chiming out in the pitch-black fields, a wailing of fiddles as well. Simon made the first move and soon he was winning easily. He was the kind of player who had all his moves prepared in his head long before he touched a single pawn.”

Osborne’s writing is precise, but the tone is ambiguous and mysterious, portending something sinister or profound in ways that I found delightfully unsettling.

Hunters feels like an old school psychological thriller that would have felt right at home in the hands of Alfred Hitchcock. But it’s a thriller that pushes the boundaries of the genre with its obsession with the ideas of fate and chance. Fate and chance here are not just abstract themes but the very fulcrums that turn the plot.

In the end, the whirlwind of experiences changes Robert. His Western confidence in certainties is forever tainted: “Karma swirled around all things, lending them destinies over which mere desire had no control. It made one’s little calculations irrelevant.” Ultimately, I think Osborne is giving us a critique of Western life and its modern ideas of individualism and linear thinking at the level of plot and narrative structure. But it isn’t just a simple contrast of East versus West. It is also a contrast of modes of thinking: rational European versus a Khmer one that puts equal weight on omens, signs, and spirits. It is a book about different belief systems colliding and crashing into each other with violent consequences. ( )
  gendeg | Feb 17, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I loved this book! It is beautifully written and deliciously unpredictable. The characters are fully drawn, even the more minor characters, and even the "worst" people are sympathetic. I'd say the book has two negatives: the beginning is slow to start; and the author's assumption about the reader's knowledge of Cambodia (its language and culture) is a bit too expansive. I've been to Cambodia or I would have been pretty confused about several small things. ( )
  perzsa | Jan 18, 2017 |
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