As THE DARKEST LITTLE ROOM opens we meet Joseph, a 33 year-old expat Australian journalist who has been working in Indochina for some years and is now based in Saigon. As a freelancer he works on whatever stories he can find, using an ex policeman called Minh Quy as his investigator and, to supplement their income, as a fellow conspirator in some low-level blackmail. Joseph also pays a young street kid who calls himself Peter Pan to look for a girl that Joseph has lost touch with but is desperate to find. A German tourists seeks out Joseph and tells him about a club which is more sordid and depraved than all the other brothels in Saigon where, in a place called the darkest little room, a woman has been particularly brutally tortured. The tourist claims he is too scared to go to the police but thinks a journalist may be able to do something about the situation. Despite being warned off by Minh Quy and his rich business man friend Zhuan, Joseph does look into the situation which is about the point his life spirals into a version of madness as he finds (or does he?) the woman he has been looking for and goes on the hunt for her human traffickers.
The thing that struck me first about the novel is that this is not the Vietnam readers may have visited on a two-week package holiday or viewed through the prism of a Sunday afternoon travel show. It is a country in which human life is valued in a way completely foreign to my Australian middle-class existence and in which many people struggle with the grimmest of survivals due to a level of poverty I feel deeply fortunate never to have known. A poverty that those locals who do escape it never wish to think of again as Joseph explains early on
“People in Indochina are not sentimental about poverty. They do not read about it in books written by middle-class men and women who make safe dreams about poverty from a far far distance. So the romantic light in which we cast the condition does not shine, say, on the man at the top of the alley whose legs were blown of in the American War, now sleeping in the shopping trolley that his relatives push him about in; nor on the old woman with cancer, wet and filthy in a steaming house where her sons will not pay for the doctor and the doctor will not work without money and the morphine sits unused in a cupboard at the clinic a street away. All traces of poverty must be banished in Vietnam.” (p23).
This is how Holland lets us know that although he’s not a native he’s intimately familiar with the country. It’s also how he shows us we’re not in for an easy ride with THE DARKEST LITTLE ROOM. Not only will we be troubled by some fairly horrific imagery but we will, in all likelihood, have to confront our own beliefs about how we view and act towards people whose lives are vastly different from our own.
That breathtaking sense of place – the way it is so image-rich and enveloping that it makes you believe you are right there to the point that when the going gets tough (a frequent occurrence) I wanted to look out my window just to make sure I wasn’t in some seedy Saigon brothel or being chased through a northern Vietnamese jungle – is the only element of this novel about which I am not ambivalent.
About the rest I am not so sure. I’ve been mulling it over for a few days now and doubt I’ll quickly come to any definitive answers so have decided to share my undoubtedly muddled thinking. Apologies in advance.
Most of my ambivalence surrounds the fact that so many elements of the book are familiar…wearily familiar.
I wonder if I have reached my fill, for example, of books in which women are not people. I do understand that a book dealing with a subject like human trafficking must, of necessity, depict many people with the view that women are mere objects but here there is not a solitary individual – not a sidekick (quirky or otherwise), not the protagonist and not the women themselves – who think or behave as if women are anything but things. Things to look at. Things to own and trade. Things to use and discard when the attributes that give them value – youth and beauty – have disappeared. I was hopeful that when Zhuan pointedly asked Joseph why he doesn’t crusade on the part of old whores and junkies (p124) that I might have found a lone voice with at least a slightly different view of women but, as things turn out,…no.
I am bloody tired of this world view, no matter how realistic it might be. There are indicators both inane (a popular Australian panel news show last night had its first all-female panel in 4+ years of being on air and seemed pretty proud to be so ground-breaking in having an all-mum panel to precede this weekend’s Mothers Day) and disturbing (official statistics confirm that over three quarters of Australia’s intimate partner homicides involve a male offender and a female victim) that women still have a long way to go before anything like equality is ours and I am, I think, just heartily fed up with being constantly reminded of my inferior status as a human being in the way that this book does. I read one commentary which I annoyingly can’t find now in which the reader sees the woman at the centre of Joseph’s search as a strong character who fights back against her oppression and objectification using her street smarts but even on a second reflection of proceedings I cannot see this character in this way. I don’t want to spoil things for those of you who read the book so will simply say that the way things finish up for Joseph’s ‘love interest’ is not the way I would want things to finish up for any woman I know.
In a way I suppose my second major area of ambivalence mixed with tiredness at the familiarity of the theme is tied up with the first but it is specifically the elements of Joseph’s character which the author appeared to be putting under a microscope and, by omission, those he left unexplored. In the end this is basically a book about a bloke who believes himself in love with a prostitute, who happens to be extraordinarily beautiful, who he then attempts to rescue. Holland does expose Joseph’s self-righteousness and hypocrisy in an unflattering way but I found it troublesome that other issues were ignored, particularly the fact that the girl was 15 and Joseph 31 when they first met (they are 17 and 33 respectively when the action of the novel takes place). Again it is a case of me being weary of seeing such relationships depicted as normal by virtue of them not being remarked upon.
My final gripe is really only minor in comparison but I’m not convinced the novel is of the crime genre despite its heavy marketing that way. If it is it’s only in the broadest possible sense, in the way say that Ian McEwan’s ATONEMENT might be considered of the genre because there is a crime at the start of it. There are crimes in it but they do not really drive the story and, frankly, only those who’ve read precious little of the genre would be confounded by the mysterious element of the novel. I’m prepared to admit though that my acceptance of what is and isn’t crime fiction tends to be quite fluid and it’s not as if there’s an official standard which the book has failed to meet.
In the end then I found THE DARKEST LITTLE ROOM a troubling book on many levels, only some of which I imagine the author intended and I struggle to recommend it, despite the presence of excellent attributes. I want, absurdly I know, to prevent men from reading one more book in which they see it is basically OK to objectify women and to prevent women from reading one more book in which they are reminded that their second class status as human beings has not, where it counts, been wiped away by a few pieces of legislation. But of course whether you read the book or not those things will still be true.
Publisher: Transit Lounge 
Length: 267 pages
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