There's a familiar kind of book. A white man — specifically a Briton — in Asia. You can already sense him; aloof, condescending, assured. The world is his playground and he's out to play. That kind of book has already been written.
Lawrence Osborne's Hunters in the Dark is not that book. Its white man, Robert Grieve, is some of the things above. But mostly he's "ignorant and innocent," unaware of the world and its many cruelties. He is also "drifting, and drifting consciously" from his boring teaching job back in England, a country whose "fortunes were not going to recover for a very long time, perhaps centuries."
We meet Robert just after he's crossed the border from Thailand to Cambodia. He's a little down on his luck. But then, on a whim, he goes gambling, and wins what is surely, even in that part of the world, a very modest amount of money. And rather than spending it all right there and then or trying to find his way back home, Robert decides "to hold on to it and plant it for a while and, if possible, make it flower."
Unfortunately, he is soon robbed of his small fortune — and not by a Cambodian, which would've been the trope. The antagonist in question is Simon, a man "in elegant, summer whites, dark blond and incongruous and indifferent," whom Robert initially sights on a trip to a temple ruin. Simon is a fellow "barang," an American; his voice is "aristocratic, New England, slightly clipped."
Penniless, Robert ends up in the capital, Phonm Phenh. Even as his luck changes, even as he soon finds a "more confident stride," (he is, after all, an Englishman in Asia) there's a feeling that it's not going to end too well. Osborne is a master at creating a subtle but unmistakable sense of impending doom; he does it here through his metaphor of choice — Southeast Asia's afternoon rain clouds: "a great atomic cloud had formed, bright silver at the edges ... the electricity which rippled through the air drew the eye to the slow-motion mushroom cloud and its impending crisis."
Osborne weaves in Cambodia's history — relying on dark humor to capture the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s — and he has a masterful grasp on the present, and much to say about the East and the West. But it's money more than history that drives this book. Small amounts, the dreams of bigger amounts, the lure of vast amounts — Hunters In the Dark is a small book with about a handful of characters, all "hunters in the dark" looking for happiness — or at least, an edge up on everyone else.
But here lies my first real niggle with the book: While Robert might be classified as a hunter, he is also strangely aimless; nothing's really propelling him forward. Does Robert care about or love anything — or anybody? He seems ambivalent about his past relationships, about his current Khmer girlfriend (and yes, he kind of ends up with one). Graham Greene, to whom Osborne has been compared — not unjustly — had characters who also often found themselves in strange lands, grappling with strange cultures. But they all — even the most distant, reclusive, lost — had beating hearts and messy, complicated lives. Osborne's characters are distant, dispassionate human beings uninterested in much of anything — so when terrible things happen to them, it's hard to sympathize.
But that's a relatively small quibble in what is otherwise an elegant, dark, well-put together novel. Perhaps too well put together, especially in its final third, where it feels a little packed with convenient coincidences. Nevertheless, the pace picks up towards the end and the book races towards a surprising ending — one that I did not see coming and one that was as refreshing as a rain shower after a stifling hot afternoon.
Nishant Dahiya is NPR's Asia Editor. He tweets at @nprnishant.