This novel is set mainly in Thailand. A young freelance writer is living there with his girlfriend and hears a small part of a story about a woman, Martiya van der Leun, from the United States who is in a Thai jail for murder. He is involved in her life in a relatively insignificant way and then becomes obsessed with finding out how she got there.
The story explores Martiya’s life from her birth to a Dutch father and a Malaysian mother through her death. Her father is a renowned linguist and ends up at Berkeley where Martiya later studies anthropology. Thus, the title of the novel as Martiya goes to Thailand as part of her degree to study the Dyalo of northern Thailand, a seemingly random choice suggested by her advisor. Here is where Martiya is at after living in a Dyalo village for five months: “Martiya arrived in Dan Loi believing that because of her childhood in a Pipikoro village, because she had been a curious and excited traveler, and because of her sensitivities to indigenous people as a student, she would find anthropological fieldwork easy; or if not easy, than compellingly interesting. She was wrong. It was not easy and only intermittently interesting. This discovery was a crushing blow to her ego: her father had warned her in his mild way before leaving that she might not find fieldwork wholly to her liking.”
In order to understand how Martiya goes from fieldwork to jail for murder, the freelance journalist investigates the story of her victim as well. David Walker is also considered a foreigner in Thailand, although he lived there for all but five years of his life. The sojourn of his family from his grandparents as missionaries in China to his days converting Dyalo to Christianity is a significant and interesting part of the novel. And, no less interesting is David Walker’s brief rebellion as a young man and return to the United States where he follows the Grateful Dead for a few years.
The story of the Dyalo is told from outside points-of-view, like in the letters from Martiya to her friend or the stories of David’s parents. Martiya ends up violating a Dyalo tradition having to do with rice planting and is faced with isolation in her village. She turns to her translator from years ago for help, Khun Vinai. Vinai tells her, “I will not live with Rice. Do not bring the anger of Rice into the hut of our children. For I fear Rice, as I fear Lightning, and I fear Death.” I wish there had been more of the story told from the Dyalo point-of-view.
I enjoyed the book and was caught up in the characters’ lives. If I had known it was a story involving missionaries, I might not have read it. I have a hard time with the concept that people living without knowledge of Christianity are fine, but once they are told about it and do not convert are then condemned. This book gave me a slightly different view into the lives of missionaries as well as anthropologists.