Review: THE DARKEST LITTLE ROOM by Patrick Holland

The Darkest Little Room - Patr20007fAs 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 [2012]
ISBN/ASIN: 9781921924248
Length: 267 pages
Format: paperback
Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://fairdinkumcrime.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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11 thoughts on “Review: THE DARKEST LITTLE ROOM by Patrick Holland

  1. Bernadette – Oh, do I know what you mean about the plethora of books in which women are objectified. I know that it goes on. I do. I know that it’s awful and we should not forget it. But I too am weary of it. I hadn’t thought about the way you mention it, but perhaps like you, I get tired of the constant reminders of how far too many people view women. As you say, it may be realistic but still…
     
    I’m glad the setting is done so well; that matters to me. But I think I’ll give this one a miss, at least for now. Maybe I just need a break from that sort of book.

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    • I’m still conflicted about recommending this book or not Margot – I don’t like doing any author a disservice based on what is basically my personal scale of fedupedness.

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  2. Some really interesting points Bernadette. Firstly, I agree that many books are being marketed as ‘crime’ that bear only a passing resemblance to what I would consider to be a crime novel. I usually end up feeling disgruntled as if I want to read a crime book, that’s what I expect to be delivered.

    In terms of your critique of women and the male/female relationship, I totally agree with you although I tend to steer away from these books so it’s unlikely I would have read this novel anyway. To be fair, it’s a motif throughout literature – Dickens, Austen all have much older men falling for young girls. I suspect it’s every male’s fantasy when they reach a certain age (shades of the personal here so I won’t say any more). Doesn’t make palatable reading though.

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  3. I read this book a couple of months ago, and, for me, it was one of the best books I’ve ever read by an Australian on Asia. I see where you’re coming from with this review, but frankly, if you don’t want to read a book with objectified women in it, you probably shouldn’t read a book about the SE Asian sex trade. And here’s where I agree with you. This book is definitely NOT crime fiction. The crime plays only a very small part, and crime is a kind of deliberate fantasy, it asks you to suspend belief: your belief that Poirot just happens to be on another train where someone gets killed, and people get shot/knifed and exit stage left. This book is NOT that. There are many experiences you could have of SE Asia. And as someone who has worked in the field Holland is talking about here, this is most definitely one of them, and, I think, Holland is too genuine a writer to bend to ideological pressure and make the girls in this book more active agents than they are – a thing that would be very easy for him to do. And the heroine does has her success, it is a limited one, no rising gloriously above tragedy to the throne, and I agree, I wouldn’t want my daughter to end up with ‘success’ on this level either. But for the girl in question, she gets, in part, by a heavy price, what she wants. (one more thing, I think it’s strange that no one has picked up the fact that Holland has basically done his own contemporary version of the Vietnamese classic ‘Tale of Kieu’, which also, by contemporary standards, doesn’t end particular ‘well’. I’m sure the author of ‘The Darkest Little Room has this poem in mind while writing his novel). True, those wanting rosier pictures of women in prostitution are advised to look elsewhere. However, for those wanting a book whose poetry and power are extraordinary, I would look no further.

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    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts so eloquently. One thing that was obvious to me when I read the book was how little I know about Vietnam and its culture and history…I’m sure there were many elements that completely passed me by, not least of which is the comparison to the Vietnamese classic poem you mention.

      I should say I didn’t know the book was about the SE Asian sex trade when I started it. It was sent to me as an example of current Australian crime fiction and – as that’s what we discuss here on this blog – I read it without even looking at the blurb. It’s actually quite rare for me to come across a book I know nothing about so I quite like to do the “jump in unknowingly” thing when the opportunity arises. And you’re right of course – the subject matter demands the point of view – though it doesn’t explain why an Australian man raised in Australia who is only in his early 30’s would talk repeatedly of a woman “belonging to him”. Of course I know there are plenty of Australian blokes who think that way and it’s no surprise that one appeared in this book but it doesn’t stop me being disappointed by it. And sick of it.

      I do think crime fiction can be a lot broader than the classic Poirot-style whodunnit – many of my favourite crime novels are far more in the “whydunnit” camp in that they explore the reasons for a crime taking place – the circumstances that allowed it to happen, the personal histories of the people involved and so on. These don’t have the classic mystery structure of a Christie novel but are still driven narratively by the crime. I don’t think this book did anything like that or any of the other things I would happily categorise as “new crime fiction” but it is very definitely being marketed as Australian crime fiction which is why I thought it OK to comment on that issue in my review.

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      • Yes. That’s true, there are many different kinds of crime fiction. And this really isn’t one of them. ‘Thriller’, I suppose, but very much a ‘literary’ thriller, though I hate how snobby that sounds. As a woman, (is this terrible?) I like the romantic notion expressed by the narrator in ‘owning’ Thuy. It reminds me of Wuthering Heights, and I think it’s a very different kind of ‘ownership’ than the one the slave traders and brothel owners are talking about, which may well be the point of the novel. If you think how obsessed the narrator is with her, to his own detriment, you could make the case that she owns him too. I admit I saw Holland at BWF this year and had his take on it before reading. He’s very eloquent, intelligent (ahhh – and handsome. Does this disqualify my judgement? 😉 )

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        • hmmmm….the comparison to Wuthering Heights is an interesting one…I’ve always hated the cloying obsessiveness of that novel too so it does seem quite apt…It is my fierce independent streak I think…my mother still talks sadly of my first day at school when all the other children were clinging to their mothers’ legs while I ran away from mine without looking back once…eager she could see to be ‘on my own’…as if I’d been trapped for all those years. And I have never really been comfortable with the notion of belonging to anyone…to my own detriment in some ways I suspect.

          I do love that idea that a hundred people reading the same book can essentially read a hundred different books – based on their interpretations and personal histories and all sorts of esoteric things. Life would be dull if we all saw things the same way…and I have certainly been smitten with authors myself and am sure those feelings influence my enjoyment of their books so I wouldn’t dare suggest it disqualifies judgement 🙂

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          • Ah, well, we might be getting to the bottom of things. I cried my eyes out on my first day of school, and tried to run away, though the fact that I hardly spoke a word of English didn’t help. I totally agree that 100 readers reading one title read 100 different books. And after two ‘can’t-commit’ boyfriends in a row, a bit of Wuthering Heights style ownership doesn’t sound that bad to me. I own them too though, that’s part of the deal. Form an orderly queue gents. 🙂

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  4. This is an interesting discussion.
    At our local farmer’s market I frequently see men in their 50s with very young children, with wives who are in their 30s. Perhaps they are not in their 50s but just look it because of the pressures of modern life. Women are marrying much later in life, and having children well into their late 30s when in Victorian times they would have them in their teens and early twenties. Dickens and Austen feature older men falling for young girls, simply because in their real world so many women died in childbirth.
    When the vast majority of crime fiction readers, and readers, are women I wonder why books that feature torture and objectification of women are seemingly so popular?

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    • Oh yes Norman I know there are lots of real-life examples of this kind of relationship – I guess I was struck by the fact that in this case the female was not even an adult at the outset.

      As for the issue of why women are so willing to read books in which we are objectified I’ve no idea – I tend to shy away from those books if I can. I did hear Tess Gerritsen talk once about all the letters and so on she receives from women who have been victims of one kind of violence or another who like her books which tend to feature those kinds of storylines) – she said most of them identify with the characters but then like the fact that at the end (in Gerritsen’s case) someone is normally brought to justice for the crimes.

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